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Credit Where Credit Is Due

This week, the Department of Education released the findings of a new study in which the cornerstone is an increased graduation rate, which now stands at 78 percent of students. Significantly, there is an increase of 10 percent of graduating Latinos over the last five years. In 2006, the graduation rate for Latinos stood at 61 percent, a contrast to 2010 in which it jumped to 71 percent.

No one can argue about these encouraging increases. However, what struck me was U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s comments surrounding the causes for these increases. In an interview with the Associated Press, Duncan insinuated that the increase is due to the weak economy and the idea that people must have at least a high school diploma to get a “good” job. He states that, “if you drop out of high school, how many good jobs are there for you? None. That wasn’t true 10 or 15 years ago.”

Now I want to be clear. I did not read this study. I also possess very little to no knowledge about what goes into a study such as this. I do however notice what’s missing here. I find it very strange that a story on an increase in graduation rates, or any increase in measurable student achievement data, fails to mention the work of teachers. Am I crazy?

Also, I have no idea why Duncan himself does not take any credit at all. Maybe he feels as if he really did nothing to help this problem? If that was true, and if I were Arne Duncan, I would ask myself why the Secretary of Education has no impact on graduation rates in the U.S. That seems like something that would fall under my jurisdiction.

Furthermore, I find it odd when Duncan insinuates that all you need to score a good job in America is a high school diploma. Maybe I’m biased. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe it’s because I live in the Bay Area and know that a college degree no longer guarantees anything. But still, is this the message we want to send to our children?

If I were being honest with my high school students, I would tell them that a high school diploma will never get you a “good job.” It will get you more than being a dropout, sure.  But let’s be honest. If you are a high school student pulling consistent D’s, your chances of landing a good job are about as likely as me investing in a startup, making a couple million dollars, and retiring at 40 while opening my own winery. Sure, it’s possible. It’s just not likely.

And are you really going to tell me that 10-15 years ago all I needed to land my “good” teaching job was a high school diploma? That is unless you think being a teacher is not a good job. When I was in high school, I learned the same story as my parents: “If you don’t go to college, you’ll end up flippin’ burgers.” An over-exaggeration? Sure. But was it totally off base? No.

If I hopped in my DeLorean, gunned it to 88 mph, and went back to 2002, I wouldn’t tell myself, “Hey man, you know that whole thing about college and careers and everything? Yeah… don’t worry about that. What you need is that diploma. That will set you up for life.” I would probably say something like this: “Bet everything you have on the Red Sox to win the World Series in 2004. Also, that Apple stock… INVEST.”

I really hope that the message educators send out to the world is not that we have had no effect on graduation rates. I hope we don’t imply that it is just a fortuitous byproduct of overzealous, unregulated, and dangerous corporate investing which burst open and bottomed out the housing market and, in turn, the stock market and economy. Please don’t tell me, “You know what works in education? Sabotaging our economy.”

I would just like to think that MAYBE, somewhere along the line, we had something to do with it. All of the effort, the unpaid hours, the sweat, the money, the heart and soul that we put into our careers, our lives… MAYBE that had something to do with it.

I am reminded of a Latino Literature class that I teach. We are often the stories of America that go untold. We are the silent voices even though we are so many. There is a narrative already written about who we are and what we do. But what is our narrative? Where is our credit? In her novel How to Be a Chicana Role Model, Michele Serros ponders about a man she knows and wonders, “how he knew where he was going if he didn’t know where he was from?” I wonder the same thing about Mr. Duncan.

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