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This week I’m ducking into and out of the Achieving the Dream conference, from the relative comfort of my laptop. It’s a very different kind of conference experience.

The most basic difference is that I’m still at work. Normally, a conference like that involves a travel day, a few days on site and a travel day back. This conference involves logging on when I have gaps between meetings. This way is cheaper, certainly, and it’s easier in some obvious respects. I’m still very much at work; I picked sessions that fit in gaps between work meetings. I miss the change of scene that a conference usually brings, and the informal hotel-lobby conversations, but there’s still value in this format.

I didn’t realize how much value until I saw the opening keynote, by Jesmyn Ward. She told autobiographical stories in an elevated way, weaving lofty language with sharply observed particulars. In other words, she was terrific. But about halfway through her talk, I realized that I hadn’t heard anything like that in a long, long time.

In the wake of the pandemic, administration has become much more tactical than strategic. It’s all about the details. Some of that is obviously necessary, since matters that were normally routine were suddenly disrupted and we had to start from scratch. Over time, though, too many conversations around “wait, if we shift that deadline by a week, what happens with the withdraw date?” start to wear down the spirit. The combination of complicated ripple effects with cascading deadlines means that every decision is complicated, information is even less complete than usual and nearly every decision angers someone, somewhere.

Hearing an extended talk that ignored all of that, and instead focused on why we do this work in the first place, felt like coming up for air. I needed that.

I was able to catch most of one panel after that, on dual enrollment. (Naturally, it was interrupted by phone calls. Did I mention details?) It featured Malika Savoy-Brooks, from the School District of Philadelphia; Steve Zrike, from the Salem (Mass.) public schools; and Gelsey Mehl, from the Aspen Institute. During his presentation, I realized that Zrike arrived at the Holyoke Public Schools just as I left Holyoke Community College, and that I knew the situation into which he walked in 2015.

The line that jumped out at me -- and I have to plead distraction, so I didn’t write down which panelist said it -- was that high schools are judged on graduation rates, but nobody tracks how well their graduates do in college. That can lead to some suboptimal incentives.

The opposite is also true, of course; any given indicator can be gamed, misread or misused. I wouldn’t want high schools to steer students away from college for fear of damaging their average graduate’s GPA, for instance. But when it came up, I couldn’t quite shake the idea. I can already come up with objections -- if a wealthy district only sends a small percentage of its grads to the local community college, it might well argue that the small percentage isn’t representative, for example -- but it might like a fascinating line of inquiry for some enterprising sociologist. Do some schools overperform, relative to demographics? If so, what are they doing? Do some underperform? If so, why?

It would be ridiculous to conclude too much from a few data points. For example, we know perfectly well that school districts are largely segregated by race and class. (My quick-and-dirty indicator is to compare values of similar houses in nearby districts.) Underperformance in college might reflect grade inflation in high school, yes, but it might also reflect unmet basic needs and complicated lives getting in the way. It might reflect the difference between communities in which students need to work 40 hours a week to afford school and communities in which students can afford to attend college full-time. It also assumes that students go to college immediately after graduation, which community college people know isn’t true. Still, the fact that we mostly don’t bother even to try seems to reflect something.

So thank you, ATD, for giving me a chance to look up from the weeds for a bit. I’ll try to take better notes on day two …

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