The path to high school graduation is complicated for millions of young people, particularly those living in poverty, with disabilities or trapped in dropout factory schools. Despite these challenges, school districts, communities and states are finding ways to dramatically raise high school graduation rates.
In the face of what Harvard social scientist and author Robert Putnam calls an American Dream in crisis in his new book, “Our Kids,” high school graduation rates are an unusual source of hope. Solutions, however, have not spread to all the places that need them and wide opportunity gaps persist.
A report released this week shows that high school graduation rates have reached an all-time high of 81.4 percent, keeping the nation on pace to reach 90 percent by the class of 2020. Rates of progress varied widely across states and districts, debunking the view that gains are the result of broad economic, demographic or social trends. With sustained effort and focus, the report’s data show that graduation rates can be increased significantly in any part of the country, for all types of students.
The report was done by public policy firm Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.
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One quarter of the 500 largest school districts had gains that tripled the national average. The students they educated were mostly minority and low income. Dropout factory schools continued to decline from 2,000 in 2002 to less than 1,200 in 2013, with 1.5 million fewer students attending them over this period.
As a result, 1.8 million more students graduated from high school over the last decade rather than dropping out. More employment and earning power; lower rates of welfare, substance abuse and prison; and greater rates of voting and volunteering are the payoffs.
Hispanic and African-American students led the way, with 15 and 9 percentage point gains in their graduation rates since 2006. While still 10 and 15 percentage points behind their White and Asian peers in graduating from high school, Hispanics are now on pace to reach the 90 percent goal by 2020, and African-Americans are within reach if they accelerate their progress.
Progress is tempered by further challenge. While the on-time high school graduation rate for low-income students rose steadily to more than 73 percent over the last two years, graduation rates for middle and high-income students are close to 90 percent. Some states, like Kentucky, have a majority of low-income students and still graduated more than 85 percent of them. Other states, like Alaska (with 40 percent low-income students) only ushered 59 percent across the graduation line.
Part of Kentucky’s secret sauce was focusing attention and resources on its low-performing schools, using data to understand where and why low-income students were falling off track, and mobilizing the supports students need to stay and succeed in school.
The stakes are higher than ever for the nation to live up to its creed of equal opportunity – the majority of students in public schools K-12 are now low-income – and soon minority students will be in the majority.
The disability graduation gap is even more disturbing, together with the inequities of stigma and punishment that persist nationally and in many states and school districts. Hear this: If you are a student with a disability in America, your chances of graduating high school nationally are six in 10, when the evidence is clear that nine in 10 have the capabilities to earn a regular diploma. If you live in Mississippi, only 22 percent of students with disabilities are graduating, representing a 53 percentage-point gap in graduation rates for those students without disabilities.
Many of those states that are closest to reaching the 90 percent goal have stagnated, suggesting that the challenge becomes more difficult as states edge up to the goal. One-third of the nation’s 500 largest districts made minimal progress or saw their graduation rates decline. Twenty percent of African Americans and 15 percent of Hispanics remain trapped in these low-performing schools.
The challenge ahead of us is clear. To reach 90 percent for all students and maintain our nation’s commitment to equality of opportunity, 310,000 more students must earn a high school diploma in the class of 2020 than in the class of 2013. About 80 percent of those additional graduates must be low-income students, and a significant portion must be special education students, minorities and English language learners. This is just three LA Coliseums worth of students we need to move from dropouts to graduates.
As the American Dream remains in crisis and trends over the last generation show sharp divisions between the “haves” and “have nots,” these student populations and the schools and districts they attend are a roadmap for improvement toward an opportunity America. Data from the last decade tell us we know how to do this. We just have to redouble and refocus our efforts to get the job done.
John Bridgeland is CEO of public policy firm Civic Enterprises and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Robert Balfanz is director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. Both are co-authors of the “Building a Grad Nation” report found at GradNation.org, in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance. They wrote this for Tribune News Service.