The new Washington DC Council ‘high school graduation policy’ law is a teaching model of cognitive dissonance…

The devil, as is often the case, is in the details of these two qualifying (in my view logic defying and nullifying) criteria: “Missed more than six weeks of class” and “Would apply only to students who meet all other academic standards.”

(Full disclosure: For 4+ years I led the design, development and leadership of a STEM-CTE school in DCPS—Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School.)

The F. Scott Fitzgerald assertion which says that: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”, can serve to ‘grow’ student smartness.
This particular thinking-methodology is a necessary tool in any area of social and/or scientific analysis and research. As well as an important conceptual skill and key learning objective centerpiece of all high school education.
However, we must also teach students to recognize two ideas that may be: incongruent, incompatible, contradictory, negational, oxymoronic, and sadly in the case of this bill, two concepts that are not pedagogically (science and theory of learning) aligned.

Those two ideas linked together: (1) That one can be absent from class, and (2) Still master what was being taught in that class, is problematic (Beyond the laws of physics which make it impossible to be both physically present and absent at the same time).
And even if this assertion were true, metaphysically speaking, then we are wasting a lot of the tax payers ‘dimes’; since all we really need to do is mail the curriculum and syllabus to every teenager’s house and call it a day; no school buildings, teachers, cafeterias, school libraries, etc. are needed!

The cure the DC city council is proposing here, is not only ineffective, it also guarantees to make the patient worse.

The devil, as is often the case, is in the details of these two qualifying (in my view logic defying and nullifying) criteria: “Missed more than six weeks of class” and “Would apply only to students who meet all other academic standards.” Putting aside for a moment that there is an extensive list of educational reasons for having class attendance serving as one of the graduation requirements (e.g. being part of classroom discussions-group work, you can ask the teacher in-class clarifying questions, or hear the answers to questions from your classmates).
How about this simple criteria: Perhaps, some of my wise professional ancestors arrived at an astonishing conclusion, that a child not attending school on a particular day, did not learn what was being taught in school that day. (tongue firmly in check) Imagine the singular brilliance of that concept!

(I purposely digress here for a note to aspiring principals. This is how you intelligently and authentically manage ‘two opposing ideas”: All high school principals will at some point encounter an exception (to the rule) ‘attendance’ situation, for which we as professional public educators must ethically and compassionately respond. In one of my cases a student was hospitalized with a serious illness, and then needed intense home based rehabilitation services before they could return to school. The ‘time-out’ of school would go beyond the course credit ‘seat time’ requirement. Our response was to enlist the help of the school district’s ‘home bound’ teaching services. These ‘visiting teachers’ were able to communicate with the student’s regular classroom teachers, follow the same syllabus, utilize the same textbook, test the student, etc. We were also assisted by technology where the homebound student had access to a laptop computer (we provided), instructional videos, classroom lecture recordings and ‘electronic class notes’. The student was able to maintain their march toward earning course credits and graduation, despite their temporary serious heath situation. It is not a perfect response, but it does seek to meet the standard of: Doing that which is professionally ethical, reasonably achievable, and in the best interest of the child!)

To be fair to our DC city council persons, perhaps they never served in the capacity of a high school teacher or administrator (pretty scared if any did and supported this bill); if they had, that experience would have caused them to be familiar with two very co-related and codependent items; the curriculum and a ‘pacing calendar’. To fully explain these two important educational items, and how they are related and dependent on each other, would require a separate essay.
But this is the short answer concerning the problem that the ‘bill’ ignores. A great deal of the ‘learning’ that takes place in a high school course, is connected and dependent on topics that were taught earlier (as in yesterday, or a few days ago, last week…); a student missing 6 or more weeks of class, even if it is ‘spotty’ (a day here, two days…) of a geometry, Spanish Language, or biology class will find it extremely difficult to ‘bridge’ prior required knowledge and information, with the present topic they are facing, when they never received that prerequisite knowledge and information directly as a classroom experience.

Further, if the class is a single semester course (approximately 16-18 weeks depending on the district), as opposed to a full year; absences actually become ‘magnified’. The student with too many absences in this course’s compacted schedule (pacing calendar), could quickly find themselves hitting a missed-learning ‘tipping point’; where they are missing too much of the course instruction to have a reasonable chance of passing the class.

Chronic absentees whether in semester or yearlong courses will also have a hard time ‘connecting, organizing and consolidating’ the major ideas and themes (curriculum learning objectives), of the course. And this deficit learning experience will most likely reveal itself in the (ability to pass) course grade, post-course situations, such as: the course final exam, external standardized exams, the next higher level course, job, college, etc.
It takes a great deal of hard work (by both teacher and student), to get academically struggling students to pass classes, when they have relativity good attendance; and so for the chronic ‘no shows’, well…

I am hoping that the mayor vetoes this bill, which will force the school system to be painfully honest with its students and parents that gradation statistics (real or contrived) can’t override a human interest. Students are real people, with real life expectations, and they need a ‘real’ graduation to succeed in life. Let’s be honest with students; no one will be able to practice extreme absenteeism (and six or more weeks minus a crisis event is extreme), and be allowed to keep their job, or succeed in college. And so, the answer to incorrect graduation standards, is not to double-down on incorrectness.

This veto could also signal to her colleagues on the city council that one proven method of improving students attendance is to provide all (particularly Title 1) high schools with the much-needed expanded guidance and counseling support and personnel they need to successfully battle the ‘poverty driven’ reasons that drive students into becoming habitual punctuality and attendance underachievers (In high schools punctuality and attendance are inextricably linked, but that also is another essay). Principals cannot ‘over-budget’; every class must have a teacher; that unfortunately often means that areas like guidance and counseling become tragically understaffed. Schools ‘cheating’ on student support services, worsens the plight of the already ‘attendance challenged’, as it also expands the number of students who desperately need these services in order to maintain their school/class attendance, and thus their academic viability as students.

There are some very concrete and solvable reasons that students struggle with punctuality and attendance. And unless political leaders legislate the end of poverty and racism in America; schools will need strategically smart building leaders, having the necessary resources, if we want kids to come to school, on time, every day!

For the present ‘crises’ DC students don’t need a ‘pass’ to not really pass their required courses. The city invited ‘less then informed-reform’ actors to run their school system. The penalty for that bad decision is for the city’s elected leadership to now find the money to immediately invest in a massive short-term credit-recovery effort that involves afterschool, evening, weekends, school breaks and summers.

This initiative should be linked it to the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). Let academically struggling and attendance challenged SYEP high school students do ‘academic school work’ as their SYEP work-site assignment. Not to worry, they will have perfect attendance. Students who were “Sauls” when it came to regular school attendance, will be miraculously transformed into “Pauls” when their SYEP check is on the line. And yes, I know (from my experience as a superintendent) that this won’t go over well in some quarters politically, but this is a crises for these seriously at risk of not graduating students; and so they should receive their SYEP checks for picking up knowledge and credits in a classroom, instead of picking up trash in parks!

The next long-term step is having a comprehensive K-8th grade academic ‘readiness’ program that does not continually (year after year), send unprepared to do high school work students, to a predictably certain ‘educational death’ in those high schools.

The students of DC need, and their parents, and the tax payers deserve, high school graduations that are meaningful and authentic. Meaning that the student can translate their high school diploma into a real representation of that student’s knowledge and skills readiness to be successful in a post-graduation world. We fail students (and fool their parents) when we let them walk across a ‘graduation’ stage, only to fall into a despairing pit of unpreparedness for adult life. Let high school graduations mean something other than a ceremony, or a marketable (albeit false) statistic!

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public school teacher, Science Skills Center director, principal, and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership…