The 95/5 Dilemma

Blog 95-5 dilemma

NOTE: School Street is no longer an active page, but the archives remain available here for our readers. In October 2011, AASA launched a new interactive website, AASA Connect, that replaces School Street with more conversation about America's public school plus many new additional features. Visit it here.

Updated June 6, 2011

Leading America’s Schools in a Toxic Climate

America can boast of having the best public schools in the world. Every June thousands of high school students graduate with honors, with Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate certificates, with earned college credits, and acceptance into the best institutions of higher education in the world.

  • Across the country, school systems abound where over 90 percent of students graduate from high school and over 80 percent of the graduates go on to further their education.
  • The most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll tells us that 77 percent of parents in this country assign a grade of A or B to the school attended by their oldest child. Forty-nine percent of Americans assign a grade of A or B to the school in their community. Both of these numbers are the highest percentages ever recorded in response to these questions.
  • The national high school graduation rate has increased to 75 percent. The student dropout rate has been declining since 1972.
  • The NAEP fourth and eighth grade math and reading scores have never been higher.

Yet, despite these gains, public education remains under attack. Teachers and administrators are looked upon with suspicion and are seen as impediments to change, rather than as part of the solution. We have come to feel isolated and under siege. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has zeroed in on the lowest performing schools in the country—he estimates they represent five percent of the total number of schools—and he wants to transform them. He has identified federal dollars to assist in their improvement.

The unfortunate byproduct of his effort, however, is that the lowest performing five percent of our schools have come to define the other 95 percent. This is what I call "the 95/5 dilemma."

Of course, we cannot allow any of our children to fail. But in the quest to fix the five percent of our schools at the bottom, let us not forget to celebrate the successes of the other 95 percent. We all need to step forward and publicly point with pride to the vast majority of those teachers and administrators who have dedicated their lives to educating our children and who are doing a great job. We need to provide for each other a sense of community that will allow us to stand together against the naysaying tide. We must learn to be our own advocates.

Standing up for our successes has become one of AASA’s chief missions, and one we take very seriously. We invite you join us in declaring the good news—in louder voices than ever before—in your schools, in your community and in your region. This is a job we must do together.

Updated May 23, 2011

Dan's 95/5 Dilemma presentation. Slides

Updated December 1, 2010

Report Demonstrates Real Progress with 5 percent


Dan Domenech

Daniel A. Domenech
Executive Director of the
American Association of
School Administrators


A report recently issued by the Pearson Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance (AASA is a member) “provides some of the first positive signs that America is making progress reducing a nationwide crisis in the number of students who drop out of high school. The number of high schools where 40% or more of the students fail to graduate fell significantly from 2002 to 2008.”

This is an indication that real progress is being made with the 5% of our failing schools, and it did not begin just now. The transformation has been progressing since 2002. The report shows that over a six-year period the number of “dropout factories” fell by 13%, from 2007 to 1746. Most encouraging is that progress was made in schools in lower income, urban and rural districts. Most of the decline occurred in the South in states like Texas, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

Another positive sign is the increase in graduation rates from 72% to 75%. Tennessee and New York led the nation by boosting their graduation rates 15 and 10 percentage points, respectively. Twenty-nine states increased graduation rates substantially over the six year period.

Sustained Effort Produces Significant Gains

Highlighted in the report are the gains made by Richmond High School in Richmond, Indiana. Over a three-year period, from 2006 to 2009, the school’s graduation rate rose from 53% to 80%. The college going rate for RHS graduates increased from 66% to 77%. Fifty-nine percent of the students at RHS are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.

Congratulations to Richmond Community Schools Superintendent, Dr. Allen Bourff, and to the staff at Richmond High School. Yet another example that our public school system does work and that the majority of schools in America are not waiting for superman to provide their students with quality education!

Posted by Dan Domenech on Dec. 1, 2010


Updated with comments (below), October 5, 2010






The 95/5 Dilemma

Public education seems to be under attack. A motion picture is about to be released this September that actually proposes the interesting hypothesis that bad schools create bad communities, rather than vice versa.

Those of us that have been part of the public school system for many years will readily acknowledge that we have always had problems, and we have been at work for many years attempting to correct those problems. However, we can also be justifiably proud of our successes. The most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll tells us that 77% of parents assign a grade of A or B to the school attended by their oldest child. Forty-nine percent of Americans assign a grade of A or B to the school in their community. Both of these numbers are the highest percentages ever obtained in the two categories. Parents and the public seem to be pleased with their schools. So where is this constant dissatisfaction with public education as reported by the media coming from?

Currently, a legitimate focus has been placed on the lowest performing schools in the country. They are identified as being five percent of the total. They include the so called drop-out factories and are believed to be the most dysfunctional schools in the land. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has zeroed in on these schools and he wants to transform them. Every state has been asked to identify their bottom five percent and federal dollars are available to assist with the change.

An unfortunate byproduct of this effort, however, is that the lowest performing 5% of our schools are erroneously defining what is happening in the other 95%. All of the attention being given to the failures is detracting from the broader, bigger, picture. America can boast of having some of the best public schools in the world. Every June thousands of high school students graduate with honors, with Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate certificates, with earned college credits, and they are accepted into some of the best institutions of higher education in the world. School systems abound throughout the land where over 90% of the students graduate from high school and where over 80% of the graduates go on to further their education. But we don’t hear about the success stories. We only hear about the failures.

Teachers are disrespected and looked upon with suspicion as contributing to the failures. Administrators are regarded as guardians of the status quo and impediments to change. They are perceived as part of the problem rather than the solution. Solutions to fix the dysfunctional schools disregard the many working examples of schools that have succeeded with the same pupil demographics and economic backgrounds as the dysfunctional schools.

Admittedly we all have the same goal. We cannot allow any of our children to fail. But in the pursuit of fixing the 5%, let us not disregard the successes of the 95%. And let us acknowledge that the vast majority of those that have dedicated their lives to educating our children know what they are doing and ultimately, they must be part of the solution. 

Posted by Dan Domenech on Sept. 22, 2010


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Dear Dan,
Even among the bottom 5% are schools staffed by heroic principals and teachers who are dedicated to serving our society's most disadvantaged children. We should not allow the federal government to declare that any school with low test scores is a "bad" school, a "failing" school. It would make sense to evaluate schools and help them, rather than defame them, close them, or fire their staffs without any effort to throw them a lifeline.
By Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University. Submitted on September 21, 2010.

Diane – There is also the fact that each state has been asked to identify their 5% lowest performing schools. Consequently, it’s not a list of the nation’s lowest performing schools, but by state. A school on the list for a high performing state won’t be comparable to a school on the list of a low performing state.   Daniel A. Domenech, Executive Director of AASA, September 26, 2010


Dan—You could not be more correct than you are. I have been fearful of this movie since I heard about it. I am fearful because the same kind of thinking that brought us NCLB and the other misguided attempts at reform That center on external, punitive approaches to systemic change would be found by those behind the movie. I have never been surprised by the enmity shown public schools by the right wing. They hate teacher unions and would prefer to dismantle the system to allow for vouchers (or charters) so that those that “have” can take their resources and run. What has shocked me is the liberal attacks on public education that blames the schools for society’s ills rather than seeing that schools are a product of our culture, not the other way around. Keep up the fight on this because those who should be the friends of public education (or at least claim to be) seem to be doing the best job of bringing us down.
By Paul Houston, Executive Director Emeritus, AASA, President of the Center for Empowered Leadership and author of Giving Wings to Children’s Dreams: Making Our Schools Worthy of Our Children. Submitted on September 21, 2010

Paul – You are so right. Sometimes we tend to be our own worst enemy. Those of us that are not satisfied with the quality of the schools as they are, and say so, add fuel to the fires set by our critics. Look at the response submitted by the professor below. Daniel A. Domenech, Executive Director of AASA, September 26, 2010



I am a retired Superintendent of Education, and an "Emeritus" member of AASA. After reading your Blog, I forwarded it to a former professor of mine who spent most of his career teaching prospective school administrators, and who also served as president of a community college. In my e-mail message to him where I shared the Blog, I said as a former superintendent, I agreed with your view of the 95/5 Dilemma. Additionally, I told him I was interested in his view. Here is his response:

I tend to agree with the thesis of the article. The bottom 5% focus does write off a lot of good that goes on in other places. However, the implication from the article that all is well with the other 95% is a big stretch for me. If such were true, we would not have the high dropout rates that we have and the myriad problems that ill-prepared high school graduates have in post-secondary education.

I still fundamentally believe that the success of a school, in many ways, remains with the "Principal of the Place"! Quality principals can lead in such ways that good things happen for all students. It will always pain me to know that, as one who spent over 50 years in some way related to teacher/administrator preparation, we have not made across the board progress in preparing people for the challenges of leadership as teachers and administrators.

But the ultimate and fundamental problem that "educators" have not, and can not overcome alone, is the absence, in too many cases, of accountable parental/significant-adult support for children from birth to adulthood. Painfully, I must admit that I recall too many principals in the 60s-80s who said "Send me your children, and stay out of my hair, we will take care of 'things'." How could we, as educators, been so wrong at such a critical time in the history of public education in America? I do not see much on the "horizon" in America at this time that will redirect us toward a society based on "personal and collective accountability" that from the beginning communicates high expectations for parents and their children. (Written by Foster Watkins, Ed.D. Retired Educational Administrator and Professor in Higher Education, Atlanta, GA)

My former professor's remarks prompted this e-mail response from me regarding the original Blog. "One other observation I would make is in regard to the failure of the author of the 95/5 Dilemma to recognize, or at least acknowledge, the wide gaps in student achievement and other indicators of quality among school districts within a state, and sometimes among schools within a school district. I agree with you that the success of a school in many ways is dependent on the quality of the principal in the school. At the same time, I also believe that systemic change that leads to school improvement in a district begins at the district level with strong leadership from the superintendent and board of education. This systemic approach to school improvement does not appear to be happening in very many school districts. Unfortunately, large urban school districts appear to the worst. Most of them which which I am familiar are bureaucratic disasters. And the large urban districts are the focus of much of the negative media attention in the U. S.

Your point regarding the importance of meaningful parental involvement in a child's education is also well taken, one with which I totally agree".

Dan, after this exchange of e-mail messages between my former professor and me, my professor encouraged me to post our comments regarding your Blog with the AASA webmaster, which I have done. Therefore, I have his permission to post his comments which are embedded in the response above.

Thanks for your leadership in AASA.

By Tom Taylor, Ed.D. Retired Superintendent of Education & Former Professor of Educational Leadership. Currently live in Clinton, MS. Submitted on  September 23, 2010. 

Public education is better in this country than it’s ever been, at least more successful. Otherwise, how do you explain the rise in college entrance, the number of students applying for quality colleges. The truth is, for many students public education is very successful. And if teachers are failing, why are some students in the very same classes that others aren't succeeding in, doing very well and achieving at high levels. They are experiencing the same teachers and the same instruction. Fact is, some are learning, others aren't.

The problem is that one can't claim it is better for all students. The raw truth is that the economic gap is widening, and we have a diminishing middle class. Well off students are doing well, economically deprived students are not--and, because of the diminishing of the middle class, we have more economically deprived students than we have had in generations. Culture and economics are determinates to school achievements and the dirty little secret is, everyone who is a stakeholder in the process knows it.

The danger is that many in education buy into the criticism and assume responsibility for those things they can't control. It saddens me to think that overworked teachers really believe it's their responsibility to insure that all students are prepared for the college boards. This has never been the reality and it never will. We will have the underachievers with us to the degree that we have poverty and neglect. And even in those poor schools whose parents apply for vouchers or charter schools, the reality is that those are the more motivated parents who actually care enough to apply, and consequently, they (their students) will in all probability benefit more from the transfer if they are lucky enough to get one. Would anyone argue that if all students went to charter schools, we'd automatically see a massive increase in student achievement? No, because one of the advantages for charter schools is that the unmotivated students aren't part of the student population.

I believe it's a mistake for public school educators to assume such responsibility for the total success of all students. It just isn't going to happen. All students aren't going to achieve on the same level because there are more determining factors to school success than good teachers in the classroom. Public schools are a reflection of the community in which they exist.

To compound the issue, we have fifty states with fifty different curriculums, different achievement tests and different standards. We can't even agree on one national standard for all students. That's why, after eight years of No Child Left Behind, with all the testing associated with it, we haven't seen an appreciable improvement in the NAEP tests---on those national tests, achievement is relatively stable.

Finally, to compound the issue, we are now in the ludicrous position of adopting a statistic to measure student achievement gains that was originally adopted to measure the increase in milk production for dairy cattle on the University of Tennessee agricultural campus, i.e. 'value added'. It may be reliable for dairy cattle on an experimental farm, but our schools aren't barns and our students aren't cattle on a production line. The insanity will continue until we acknowledge that intelligence may be equally distributed in a population, but opportunity is not.

By Ray Ross, retired principal, Kodak, TN