Photo of StateImpact Indiana (and Kyle Stokes)

Back in 2007, your editor wrote an editorial for The Indianapolis Star about how districts throughout Indiana were gaming their graduation rates — and, more importantly, cheating children out of high-quality teaching and curricula — by granting waivers that allowed students who failed the Hoosier State’s graduation test to receive diplomas anyway. Among the most-egregious offenders was Indianapolis Public Schools, the worst-performing district in the Midwest outside of Detroit, where seven of its 10 high schools at the time had more than 10 percent of their graduates being granted diplomas despite failing a test that only tested eighth- and ninth-grade reading and math skills that should have been taught to them. This included Northwest High, which had, on average, allowed 27 percent of its graduating classes to gain diplomas despite their academic failure, and Emmerich Manual High School (which the state took over last year), which allowed 23 percent of its graduates to leave school with what Gov. Mitch Daniels had called a “counterfeit certificate”.

So your editor wasn’t shocked about revelations last week that IPS allowed 27 percent of its graduating Class of 2011 — 282 young and women deserving of a better education — to graduate despite failing the state’s battery of end-of-course exams. This includes 44 percent of Arlington Community High’s graduating class last year — 73 students — who collected sheepskins despite failing state tests. (The fact that, on average, a mere 16.5 percent of its students pass both the English and Algebra 1 graduation exams between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, should have raised questions among state officials about how many kids were really doing well enough to graduate.) One third of those graduates were young black men and women. As a result of the waivers, IPS inflated its official four-year graduation rates — including by 17 percentage points last year — as well as create the illusion that it was at least helping more of the children in its care get the preparation they needed to succeed in college and in the working world. And given that, on average, only 31 percent of IPS students successfully pass the state’s reading and math end-of-course exams over the past two school years, the high levels of students being allowed to graduate despite their poor performance is absolutely atrocious.

The news confirms Dropout Nation‘s own analysis of IPS’ continually questionable status as an educational going concern.  Although the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) improved from 32 percent to 47 percent between 2005-2006 and 2010-2011, IPS’s five-year graduation rate declined from 41 percent to 38 percent over that time, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of federal and state data. Those who do graduate are clearly not getting the instruction and college-preparatory curricula they need to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society. The percentage of IPS high schoolers taking Advanced Placement courses declined from 2.4 percent in 2006-2007 to 1.4 percent in 2009-2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights database; only 10 students took International Baccalaureate courses in 2009-2010. And with only 21 percent of seventh- and eighth-grade students taking Algebra 1 before reaching high school (and only 7.2 percent of all IPS secondary school students taking geometry, the course that prepares kids for high-skilled blue- and white-collar work), IPS is essentially condemning most of the children in its schools to despair.

The waiver news, along with the other data, offers more examples of the failed stewardship of Eugene White (a subject of two Dropout Nation Podcasts on school leadership) who has proven over the past seven years that he isn’t fit for working the coat check room at the city’s branch of Ruth’s Chris, much less oversee Indiana’s largest traditional district. Throughout his tenure, White has preferred to blame others — including children in his schools whom he has called “blind, crippled, crazy” during a radio broadcast last year — than to undertake the kind of strong reforms that current and former counterparts such as former Joel Klein and Tom Payzant have pursued with great success. He has also failed to change the district’s culture of incompetent leadership — or cut loose laggard principals and central office apparatchiks who have proven to be as much a reason for the IPS’ failures as the low quality of classroom teaching. In the process, White has allowed thousands of young men and women — especially young black men and women, who look like him, and make up the vast majority of the district’s enrollment — to be subjected to educational and (as bullied student Darnell “Dynasty” Young can attest) and social neglect. It’s high time for White to be sent home.

But this isn’t just an IPS problem. As the Star‘s Scott Elliott reported, four of Indianapolis’ 11 districts — Decatur Township, Lawrence Township, Perry and Pike  — allowed 10 percent or more of its students to graduate without actually passing state tests. In fact, 13 percent of the graduates who made up the city’s entire Class of 2011 — 887 young men and women — were given sheepskins despite being unable to get 51 percent of answers right on the state’s reading test or (63 percent of the answers right on the state’s Algebra 1 exam) more than one time while in high school. These kids are unlikely to be able to gain admission to traditional college (much less graduate in two-to-six years), a technical school program, or even gain an apprenticeship in welding. It also goes beyond Circle City limits. Eight percent of all Hoosier kids who made up the state’s Class of 2011 — 5,064 young men and women — were allowed to graduate unprepared for an economy in which high-skilled jobs in science and technology fields are the only avenues for young adults in the state to earn an income. These are kids who have been denied opportunities to write their own stories because the districts they attended school failed them.

But the districts aren’t the only ones who have done poorly by these kids. For most of the last 12 years, school reformers in Indiana have complained about the waiver system, and yet, neither Gov. Daniels (or his two predecessors),  nor the last two state superintendents — including the otherwise-laudable Tony Bennett — have stopped this gaming of the system (and educational neglect of kids) by shutting down the waiver process. By allowing districts such as IPS to grant waivers, Hoosier State leaders have made a mockery of their otherwise strong curricula standards, and overall efforts to transform education within the state. This failure in Indianapolis and Indiana has been joined by those in states such as New Jersey and Virginia, where districts have been allowed to subject kids to low expectations by offering shoddy curricula and giving them tests that fail to truly assess whether their teachers and schools have done right by them. (All of this, by the way, once again proves that the Myth of High-Stakes Testing promulgated by FairTest and others is exactly that; and for that, they should be embarrassed.)

When New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about the opportunity gap that is part of the nation’s growing economic inequality — and when otherwise-sensible school reformers such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli cite “IQ is Destiny” mythmaker Charles Murray — they forget to note is that it is really about the consequences of the nation’s education crisis — and the failure of American public education to offer the kind of learning kids needs for lifelong success in the future. Contrary to what education traditionalists may argue, neither poverty nor lack of personal responsibility equals destiny — and education has proven equipped in helping even the poorest children to become economically mobile (even when their parents aren’t of means).  But when our schools fail our children educationally — especially in urban cities such as Indianapolis — it bodes ill for all economically. America cannot continue to bend the arc of economic and social history, help poor kids move into the middle class, or even remain competitive in an increasingly global economy, if we don’t give kids high-quality teachers, strong, comprehensive curricula, and cultures of genius in which kids are nurtured through high expectations.

It is high time for Indianapolis Public Schools, and other failing and mediocre districts like it, to be relegated to the ashbin of history. Our children deserve better than zero rate.