The goal of public elementary and secondary education is to get students to successfully graduate from high school.
So what number is missing in the annual Tennessee school report card from the Department of Education? The number of graduates from each high school.
It's a bad omission. Graduates are the end product of the system. Attendance and passing grades and accumulating credits are simply parts of the big picture. The goal is to graduate. McDonald's counts hamburgers, FedEx counts packages, your favorite web sites count visitors, but our state and local school administrators are very hesitant to simply count the students who get a diploma and report them.
The report card gives a "cohort dropout rate," a "graduation rate," and an "event dropout rate." All of those measurements are confusing, and while they're somewhat useful to laymen as well as administrators, they're less telling than the raw numbers.
Actually, the number of students at each school is in the report card, but the number of graduates has to be mined out of scholarship reports that are not widely available, or estimated by doing some arithmetic.
Central High School, for example, has 1,646 students and a graduation rate of 84 percent. Sheffield High School has 800 students and a 47 percent graduation rate. Manassas High School has 569 students and a 55 percent graduation rate. How many students at each school graduated last year? If that were a question on a standardized test, the correct answer would be "need more information" because we don't know how many of them are seniors or what the dropout rate is for each class. Presumably, a student who makes it to his or her senior year has a better chance of graduating than a freshman.
We can estimate, however, that if roughly one-fourth of the students at Central are seniors, then Central had more than 300 graduates. And Sheffield had fewer than 100 graduates. And Manassas, which is the newest school, had fewer than 80 students graduate.
Using the numbers from the report card, we can say for sure that each of the three biggest Memphis high schools — White Station (2,142), Whitehaven (2,124), and Cordova (2,057) — has more students than the four smallest — Douglass (366), Westwood (500), Treadwell (498), and Oakhaven (513) — combined.
Does Memphis have too many high schools? No less an authority than former mayor and school superintendent Willie Herenton said so numerous times, but his successors and the board of education ignored him and built two new schools (Manassas and Douglass) in lightly populated areas that are at barely half their capacity.
Do small high schools perform better than big ones? That was one of the justifications for building Manassas and Douglass. Are their students more likely to graduate? No. White Station, Whitehaven, Central, Cordova, and Ridgeway each have graduation rates of 77 percent or higher. The graduation rate at the four smallest high schools ranges from 53 to 60 percent.
Memphis is spread out over 300 square miles and has a mobile population and a school system with an open enrollment policy. People with school-age children are migrating to the better city schools or the Shelby County system. But Memphis taxpayers, and to a lesser extent Shelby County taxpayers, are paying to operate and build failing high schools in sparsely populated areas where residents are moving away.
Report cards can be brutally general. As a system, Memphis got Ds in math and reading and Fs in social studies and science while Shelby County got all As. (Nashville/Davidson County got all Ds.) There are good schools within each system, as the report card shows, where at least three out of four students graduate and make As and Bs on proficiency tests.
Having too many high schools is an expensive, losing game. A straightforward graduation report would show which high schools are attracting and retaining students and which ones are losing them. Public policy should be made by the numbers, not politics.