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What’s driving gains in high school graduation rates?

April 28, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
The graduation rates for American high schools have reached 80 percent, according to a report based on statistics from the Department of Education. Jeffrey Brown discusses the milestone and the work that lies ahead with John Bridgeland of Civic Enterprises, an author of the report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some good news to report today from the world of public education:

For the first time in recent years, American high schools have cracked a milestone on graduation rates, reaching 80 percent.

Jeffrey Brown has the story, as part of our American Graduate project, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, 81 percent of American high schools graduated on time in 2012. That is up from 73 percent six years earlier. The report is based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and was compiled by a coalition called America’s Promise Alliance.

Joining us now is John Bridgeland, president and CEO of Civic Enterprises, one member of that group, and he’s an author of today’s report. He has been adviser to the American Graduate project.

And welcome to you.

JOHN BRIDGELAND, Civic Enterprises: Thank you. Nice to be with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is driving the good news? What — how did we get there?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Well, the significant gains in graduation rates have actually been among Hispanic students and African-Americans since 2006.

And these students, half of African-Americans and 40 percent of Hispanics, were trapped in these dropout factory schools, where it was literally a 50-50 proposition whether you graduated or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: You use the term dropout factory?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: We do. It’s a tough term, but I think it’s an appropriate term, because, literally, you go into these places, and half of your classmates are not finishing school.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, give me an example of a place or two where you saw the difference that resulted in these kinds of statistics.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: New York City had these large urban school districts. They broke them up into small — smaller learning communities, schools within schools, ninth grade academies, made them more personalized learning environments, where young people could connect to learning in ways that showed relationships between what they were learning in school and what they wanted to be in life.

In fact, we had done a study called “The Silent Epidemic,” listening to the perspectives of dropouts all across the United States. And they told us the leading reason they left is because they didn’t see those connections between career dreams and classroom learning.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, good news, but that of course still means that one in five students are not graduating.


JEFFREY BROWN: So, there is a lot left to do.


And, in fact, the gaps between graduation rates of low-income students and their middle- and higher-income peers up 20 percentage points or up to 30 percentage points in some states. Also, for students with disabilities, the graduate rate in Nevada is 24 percent. The graduate rates in Kansas and Montana are 77 percent and 81 percent respectively. So, we have these huge gaps between students with different needs and abilities.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what are the main factors you see in schools? Because you look at your report, and, yes, there are some places that are already approaching that 90 percent mark.


JEFFREY BROWN: There are — or above it. Then there are others below 60 percent.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: One is the awareness of the gaps between these populations.

Also, we can predict as early as late elementary school and middle school the early warning indicators of chronic absenteeism, poor behavior, course performance in reading and math. And when these young people are falling of track, we can get them the supports they need to stay on track.

We’re also seeing large school systems reform and be redesigned in ways that they become more personalized and engaging to the students, smaller classroom settings, also, beyond academics, teaching social and emotional skills, things like persistence and grit and character and discipline and collaborative problem-solving, the very skills that employers are looking for.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know this has been an effort for a long time, and I read in one article — one — in your report that it’s been undertaken by four presidents.


JEFFREY BROWN: Why has it taken so long?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: It’s so interesting.

Four successive presidents set effectively the same high school graduation rate goal of 90 percent by some certain date.


JOHN BRIDGELAND: And we have had flatlining graduation rates for 30 years.

However, in the last decade, we have increased awareness. People understood who these young people were, why they dropped out from high school, and that 50 percent of the dropouts were only found in 15 percent of the schools. So it seemed like a targeted, fixable problem.

Also, a civic Marshall Plan emerged. General Colin and Alma Powell assembled a group of leaders, educators, principals, administrators, community-based organizations, and said, let’s take the goal seriously. The class of 2020 is in third grade today. What does the evidence tell us about what we can do to keep those young people on track?

And so all these organizations have been aligning against — this GradNation and plan of action.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so I wonder now, looking ahead, two things. One, is there any sense that the easy part has been done…


JEFFREY BROWN: … that from here on, it gets a lot harder?


JEFFREY BROWN: And then, of course there’s the factor that we have reported on, on this program plenty of times, Common Core, a lot of changes that are being introduced into the curriculum in high schools around the country.


I think the good news, Jeffrey, is that the most progress since 2006 was right during the period when graduating from high school became more complicated, more difficult, more rigorous, more AP courses, more courses — courses required to graduate, exit exams to graduate.

And so schools and districts are rising to a standard of excellence. The Common Core will usher in an era of learning and accountability across the country in ways where we will know that young people, whether they are in Akron or Albuquerque or anywhere in the country, are learning effectively to a high standard. And that’s what we ought to be ascribing to.

JEFFREY BROWN: That goes to not only the numbers, but the quality of education, which of course is still very much on the table.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: That’s exactly right. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, John Bridgeland, thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Nice to be you with you, Jeffrey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have a lot more reporting from our American Graduate team, a project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That’s on our Education page.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.