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Our Views: Ga. students deserve more options in education
Narrow, college-focused school curriculum may be one reason many drop out
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

No matter how it’s computed, Georgia’s graduation rate is abysmal.

The U.S. Department of Education last week released for the first time a comparison of all the states based on a uniform method of calculating graduation rates. The numbers show Georgia with a graduation rate of 67 percent for the 2010-11 school year, meaning that roughly one student out of three failed to make it out of high school in four years with a diploma.

Only two states, Nevada and New Mexico, had rates lower than Georgia’s.

The comparison is the first that requires all states to compute rates the same way. Previously, states used a variety of different methods to determine what percentage of students graduated from high school. The method previously used by Georgia typically showed graduation rates to be much higher than under the new calculations, and state officials knew the new method would show a lower number.

Obviously, professional educators, parents, students, politicians and all reasonable people know the numbers need to improve. The question for all is how to make it happen.

In order to address the failure of students to graduate from high school, there has to be an understanding of what factors are responsible. There are many that must play a role in any discussion of improvement: economic conditions, drugs, teen pregnancy, delinquency, uninvolved parents, apathy and social malaise.

But it is also important to understand that some of those who fail to graduate from Georgia’s schools do so because the traditional school structure and graduation requirements simply don’t work for them and the world in which they live.

Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield and Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer both addressed that issue in written comments after the release of the graduation data.

“Georgia’s graduation course track is outdated and does not serve the citizens of Georgia very well,” Dyer said.

“As a state, have we been guilty of trying to lead the nation in requiring an additional dose of an antiquated model that was designed for my grandparents’ generation?” Schofield asked.

Their point is that the traditional “one size fits all” academic mandates for graduation in Georgia no longer fit the needs of many of its students, especially those who may not be college-bound. The idea that every student, regardless of skill sets and personal areas of interest, must complete the same standard set of high school course requirements is one that needs to change.

There is growing evidence that a college education may not be an essential element for success in the workforce of the future, and that for many, technical training or vocational instruction may be of more value than an academic path that leads to college.

But given the current academic landscape, it is hard to get that sort of instruction for high school students who still face mandates for earning a set number of minimum “units” in traditional academic courses.

As a result, we have students struggling to complete a required four units of math — the only state that requires as many — when what they really need to be doing is taking an auto repair class or learning how to be proficient in medical technology.

The fact is that many of those who don’t earn a high school diploma in Georgia fail to do so simply because school, in the traditional sense, simply doesn’t work for them. Because they do not have the academic skill sets needed to master required academic courses, they become frustrated and drop out.

As bleak as the state’s graduation numbers look, there definitely are some glimmers of hope. State Superintendent John Barge noted that regardless of how the numbers are calculated, the rate has improved in recent years. And, he noted, Georgia students are doing significantly better on national standardized tests.

Still, there is little solace to be had in taking steps toward improvement when you know that your graduation rate is not only worse than all the neighboring Southeastern states, but also worse that all but two nationwide. That’s not a number you put on the economic development brochures when you are recruiting new industry.

Make no mistake, there is no excuse for Georgia’s graduation rate being as low as it is. But as we address the problem, we also need to decide what we want “graduation” to mean. If the intent is to prepare students for the future, our current college-focused academic mandates may well be doing them a disservice.