Four successive U.S. presidents have set similar national goals to end the high school dropout crisis, only to see deadlines come and go without much progress. Until recently.
After 30 years of flat-lining graduation rates since the early 1970s, and more than 1 million students dropping out of high school every year, significant progress has been made in the past decade. Graduation rates have risen from 71 percent in 2001 to 81 percent in 2012. Gains have been so strong since 2006 that, for the first time, the nation has crossed the 80 percent threshold and is on pace to meet its 90 percent high school graduation rate goal by the Class of 2020.
Progress has been driven within the very populations that had the furthest to climb — with 15 percentage point gains among Hispanics and 9 percent point gains among African-Americans. The number of “dropout factories” — those schools graduating 60 percent or fewer of their students — has declined by nearly 650 schools, with 1.2 million fewer students attending them.
The gains in the past decade translated into 1.7 million more students graduating, instead of dropping out. Reaching the national goal by the Class of 2020 — those students in the sixth grade today — would mean an additional 2 million students would graduate from current levels, with huge consequences to them, our economy and civic life.
High school graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than dropouts. As former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise’s Alliance for Excellent Education reports, reaching the 90 percent goal for just one high school class would create as many as 65,700 new jobs and boost the national economy by as much as $10.9 billion. What’s more, high school graduates are more likely to vote and volunteer. Dropouts are far more likely to be poor, unemployed, incarcerated, and absent from the civic lives of their communities than graduates. The stakes are high.
So what will it actually take to reach the 90 percent goal? America cannot reach its goal without closing the opportunity gap. Graduation gaps between low-income students and their middle-to-higher-income peers reach nearly 30 percentage points in some states. The majority of states must significantly close these gaps for the nation to reach its goal.
A similar challenge is represented by how we educate students with disabilities, who represent 13 percent of all students. In Nevada, graduation rates for students with disabilities are at 24 percent, while in Montana rates equal 81 percent. The fact that some states are doing much better for low-income students and those with disabilities means that this is not an unfixable problem of poverty or ability.
While school reform in big cities has driven up graduation rates and resulted in 200 fewer dropout factory high schools, another wave of reform must drive up rates well above the 50s and 60s in urban areas and among men of color whose graduation rates languish behind all others. Big states, such as California, which has 14 percent of all students and 20 percent of low-income students, will need to continue to make significant progress as well.
Progress is possible and hope abounds. The dropout crisis went from a “silent epidemic” a decade ago to a top national and state priority. Better data and strong accountability for increasing graduation rates played key roles. School reforms, including higher expectations, more personalized learning environments, leadership from administrators and teachers in the lower-performing schools, early warning systems that identified patterns of attendance, behavior, and performance in reading and math that signaled trouble, and high quality alternative schools all have made a difference. Supports for students — from parents, counselors, mentors, tutors and national service corps members — helped create a culture where “every student counts.”
States like Tennessee, urban school districts like New York and Chicago, and rural districts such as Washington County, Md., have all seen significant gains in high school graduation rates. The poster school for “Dropout Nation” — Shelbyville, Ind. — raised its graduation rate from the low 70s in 2005 to 93 percent by 2013. The greatest gains in all these examples and nationally have come since 2006, when graduating from high school became more challenging, with more course credits, AP courses and exit exams required to graduate. Progress has been about rising to a standard of excellence.
America has significant social and economic issues to address and our trust in institutions and one another is at historic lows. Progress in improving student achievement and graduation rates could boost the life prospects for millions of young people and restore our nation’s confidence that we can tackle our greatest challenges.
ROBERT BALFANZ is director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises; they are co-authors of “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic.” Readers may write to them at: Civic Enterprises, 1101 14th Street NW, Suite 1260, Washington, D.C. 20005; website: www.civicenterprises.net.