Less than one-third of DC Public School grads are “college or career ready.”

In 2017, the graduation rates for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) was 73%. That was a record high and reflected a 20-point gain since 2011. However, while test scores in the nation’s capital have continued to rise, less than one-third of seniors were rated college-or-career ready, which begs the question about the value of a DCPS diploma. This isn’t a case study of one city’s successes or failures or a look at the value of public education. It’s meant to ask important questions like: How does society move forward under these conditions? How do we move towards a model that puts young learners rather than tenured professionals at the center of it? Why do we continue to accept a model that fails nearly two-thirds of the kids in a major American city without holding anyone truly accountable? How can we expect our nation’s children to weather all of the major changes ahead for our economy when many are barely proficient in the basics?

Perhaps one of the biggest problems we face is that we have conflated the notion of schooling with that of learning, and largely ceded both endeavors to a system of public schools that seeks to attain uniformity in education, without taking into consideration the way that individuals master information. Rather than questioning our assumptions about the way we educate our students or whether the curriculum being followed will prepare kids for the future economy, the conversation inevitably turns to a question of resources. Instead of tackling the deep-seated problems at the root of public education, we throw our hands in the air and blame a lack of funding for all our ills. But higher student spending does not correspond to better student outcomes, and in fact, over time, government has poured more and more money into education, with almost no notable change in student achievement.

The uniformity of public education has left too many students without real world skills and exposure to what’s beyond the classroom door. By and large, there aren’t opportunities for students to become immersed in a foreign language, learn “adult” skills like personal finance and investing, rarely do students volunteer or intern as part of an experiential learning program, and courses like home economics that teach practical skills like cooking have long been discarded as antiquated. Instead, we expect our students to sit like robots for 6-8 hours a day, assuming that they will absorb material through passive osmosis.

Our system of uniform public education assumes, through national standards, that every student should have the same curriculum, despite the fact that we need an incredible diversity of thinkers and a wide array of skills in the labor force to keep our nation competitive. Not all students have the same goals, and different life and career aspirations require different types of trailing.

As a result of growing dissatisfaction with the state of public schools today, home-schooling has become the fastest-growing segment of American education. This group joins the roughly 10% of students that attend private schools. But what is a family to do when both parents work and can’t educate at home or simply can’t afford private school tuition? Shouldn’t a nation so firmly grounded in the idea that school should be universal and free deliver on its promise to make those schools a place where children can fulfill their potential and become the leaders that our nation needs in the coming generations? Our public schools are failing and when they fail, they fail not just the students that attend, but the nation that depends on their success.

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