High school graduation rates are now at their highest level since the 1970s. In 2009-2010, 78.2% of students earned their diploma in four years, compared with 75.5% in 2008-2009. The graduation rate peaked at 78.7% in 1969-1970 and declined steadily until recently, dropping as low as 71% in the 1990s (data from Bloomberg News). The largest increases were among African American and Hispanic youth.
On the one hand, we should all take a step back and relax. Our schools are not failing—they are improving—and the frantic push for reform is excessive and unnecessary, or at least not urgent.
On the other hand, the market-driven reformers would love to take responsibility for the gains and claim that their privatization schemes have worked, thus justifying more of the same. Yet there is no clear evidence to support this and there are plenty of other plausible explanations.
For one, we live in a very different world than we did in the 1960s and 70s, when there were ample decent-paying jobs available to those without a high school diploma. Back then, dropping out of high school and going to work in a blue collar trade or on an assembly line made economic sense, particularly if one lacked the money or grades for college. Today, this is a much riskier option. Many of these jobs have disappeared and the ones that remain pay much less than they used to. Indeed, the youth unemployment continues to be substantially higher than the overall unemployment rate (16% for those under 25, as of November 2012).
Another option for high school dropouts has been the military. While this was a poor choice in the 1960s and early 70s, when the risk of dying in Vietnam was relatively high, from the mid-70s through the 1980s a person could make a decent living in the military without much risk of ever seeing combat and many lower income youth took this option. However, joining the military today could easily lead to a risky tour of duty (or several tours) in a violent and volatile region of the world.
While some reforms have no doubt also contributed to the rising graduation rate, these are not necessarily the market driven reforms like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, privatization and vouchers, Value-Added Measures of teacher effectiveness or Common Core Standards. Rather, increased funding for and enrollment in programs like Head Start and preschool—which help close the achievement gap that exists prior to entering the K-12 education system—increase students’ self-efficacy and school-readiness, thus improving their chances of succeeding in school over the long-term. This might also be one of the reasons why K-5 math test scores have increased so much over the past decade.
Another hypothesis that has been proposed is the closing of “dropout factories.” On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer: close the schools that produce the dropouts and more kids will necessarily graduate from school. The problem with this hypothesis is that is says nothing about where those students end up after their school has been closed or why they were dropping out at high rates in the first place, let alone whether they graduated from their new schools.
If they were dropping out because of a poorly administered school or incompetent teachers and they were reassigned to one with good management and effective teachers then we should expect an increase in graduation rates. However, because graduation rates are strongly correlated with students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, simply changing schools, teachers or administrators should not solve the problem. Many of these students have had poor academic success throughout their lives, resulting in low self-efficacy and they have given up on school.
Furthermore, the likelihood of graduating on time from high school is directly linked with students’ experiences in middle and elementary school. For example, students with high absenteeism in grades K-5 have a much higher rate of dropping out of high school. This is because they are behind in credits and prerequisite knowledge due to their absences. Poverty also leads to a significant achievement gap before kids have even started kindergarten, a gap that tends to grow with time unless mitigated early, in the pre-K and K-5 years. As a result, by the time they enter high school, many are reading far below grade level and lack the study and social skills necessary to succeed in high school. Shutting down “dropout factories” does nothing to solve these problems.
Another hypothesis that is seldom discussed in the media is the changes to teacher attitudes and training that have occurred over the past two decades. In the past, it was relatively common to track students based on their perceived or assumed abilities, which led to classes that were highly segregated by race and economic background. This likely contributed to children’s sense of alienation from school and sense that they could not succeed. Today, education programs (and many K-12 schools and districts) place a great deal of emphasis on learning how to relate to and support children from diverse backgrounds. There has been an effective movement to eliminate (or reduce) tracking and encourage children of all ethnicities, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds to take challenging courses (e.g., Advanced Placement), apply to college and maintain sufficient credits and grades to get into college. As a result, there have been large increases in the numbers of students taking and passing AP exams from virtually all backgrounds.
Anecdotally, from my own experience, it seems there has also been a growing movement for teachers, counselors and support staff to become more personally involved in students’ lives, to notice when students seem to be falling through the cracks and to contact home and help them access the appropriate support services. If this is indeed a growing trend, it could also help explain the higher graduation rates, as it would help many at-risk kids overcome the obstacles to graduating on time.
Graduation rates have steadily climbed for the last decade. During that time, teen pregnancy, drug use and violence have declined. It could be that our children are simply better behaved and more willing to do what is expected of them than their parents’ generation was.
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