The Lame Grad Rate Debate

In The Washington Post Jay Mathews jumps into the ongoing graduation rate debate. But Jay’s piece is a case study in why people get frustrated with on the one hand, on the other hand, accounts from journos. Sometimes there are not two hands, and Jay has dropped the ball here. This grad rate debate question boils down less to methods than competing data sets and their relative utility in calculating graduation rates. Unfortunately, almost nowhere (one quote, en passant from Russell W. Rumberger) in his story does Mathews really ask some of the experts on these datasets to comment on how reliable they are for answering this question. Instead it’s horserace reporting about who agrees with whom and so forth.

That said, I don’t think there is much of a debate anyway and I’ll be blunt, I think this is mostly a PR stunt to begin with. That the EPIers are publicly focusing on Jay Greene rather than others like the Harvard Civil Rights Project and John Robert Warren (pdf) who have made the same points but don’t make such convenient villains illustrates the degree to which this is political. And they’ve succeeded, as Jay Mathews’ story illustrates, in clouding the issue. Rather than a discussion about two pretty appalling estimates of graduation rates they’ve succeeded in reframing the debate away from that issue and onto methods and whether or not Jay Greene is or is not out to get the public schools. Behind the scenes this is being regarded as a big win for the public schools. I’m not sure how? It goes, though, to this whole debate about whether public schools face a substantive or PR problem. The irony, of course, is that many of us who have taken issue with other work by Jay Greene think this is one where he’s basically on the money. In any event, give those flacks a raise!

AFTie John jumps in, too, but his critique boils down to: Jay Greene gets money from the Walton Family Foundation and they support vouchers (full 2004 giving here), so his work just must be flawed. AFTie John seems to ignore that the inverse of that argument is don’t trust EPI because they’re on the take from the AFT (though both are now openly disclosing it these days and that’s commendable). It’s no way to argue and in this case both critiques are especially lame since there is underlying evidence that can be debated. File that one under “With friends like these it’s no wonder public schools are in trouble…” Also worth checking out Sherman Dorn’s take.

Update: AFTie John protests that he wasn’t impunging Greene’s work. Oh please. Here’s the money graf below (pun intended). If this funding linkage wasn’t intended as a shot at Greene then why even mention it? Anyway you decide…

AFTie John: Like every debate in education, this one has been politicized. Mishel and Roy work for a think tank that receives some funding from the AFT. (We like public schools, think they often get a bum rap, and want graduation rate measurements to be accurate.) Jay Greene’s position at the University of Arkansas is endowed by the Walton Family Foundation. (The WFF provides millions of dollars for vouchers and for politicians who support vouchers. The worse public education looks, the easier it is to gin up support for vouchers.)

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