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American Promise

Premiere Date: February 3, 2014

'American Promise' in Context

The High School Drop-Out Crisis

Despite significant progress over the past decade, graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students remain very low in many states and significant gaps persist. In an era of limited opportunities for those without high school diplomas to find jobs, one third of African-American students and 30 percent of Hispanic students are still not graduating high school.10

Examining why graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students remain very low requires an in-depth look at the in-school experiences of these students and the messages they receive about school and achievement off school grounds.

In school:

  • One in four African Americans and nearly one in five Hispanic students still attend high schools where graduating is not the norm. These "dropout factories" project a culture that frames dropping out as acceptable and common, something to give in to rather than fight.11 Authority figures in schools, from superintendents to teachers, who put forth low expectations for their students only encourage students to be satisfied with that low level of achievement.12
  • Fear of failure results in lack of trying. Students would rather it seem to their peers and parents that they are not trying and don't care, rather than be seen as trying and still struggling.13 Nearly half of the students interviewed for a report titled "The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts" said that a major reason for dropping out was a lack of engagement.14

Ronald Ferguson of Harvard's Achievement Gap Initiative and his peers find differences in the lives of students outside of school have impact on their attitudes about achievement:

  • Images of successful African-American and Hispanic adults are not as accessible as images of successful white adults in the United States. Minority students who are not shown successful "future selves" for which to strive are not receiving the same positive reinforcement that white students receive15.
  • An intergenerational study of African-American and European-American parenting practices, customs, knowledge and priorities found that practices such as creating a school-oriented home environment, allowing adolescents to make decisions and not burdening school attendees with too many chores had particularly important effects on the achievement gap. Messages students receive from their parents about school achievement through active, encouraging, verbal or non-verbal cues have an effect on achievement.16
  • Being part of a community that lacks support systems—afterschool programs, neighborhood organizations, other families and informal social networks—that help parents and families succeed in school can impede achievement levels. W. Norton Grubb's study on inequality finds that resources are often allocated by family background or race: students from high socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to live in districts with high spending and well-credentialed teachers, while poor and minority students are more likely to be found in urban districts with lower levels of spending (especially relative to need), un-credentialed teachers, overwhelmed administrators and incompetent district staff. This pattern in resource inequality extends to the home, where overburdened parents lack a support system that should be provided by the school system.17

The 2013 "Building a Grad Nation" report from America's Promise Alliance states that a significant decrease in "dropout factory" schools shows that the nation is making progress. The organization says that by setting goals and accelerating efforts in states that matter most, the nation can achieve a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.

Read the full report. The 2013 Update of Building a Grad Nation provides an analysis of the latest graduation rate data and a comprehensive review of efforts to accelerate student achievement from across the nation. To connect with different perspectives and to learn more about what is happening state to state to achieve a 90 percent graduation rate, visit the American Graduate Research Center.

10 America's Promise Alliance. "Building A Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic."
11 America's Promise Alliance. "Dropout Crisis Facts."
12 CNN Pressroom. "'GREAT EXPECTATIONS' Pursues Solutions for Meeting the Achievement Gap in Education."
13 Excellence With Equity: A Social Movement for the 21st Century.
14 Bridgeland, John M. et al. Civic Enterprises: "The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts."
15 Excellence With Equity: A Social Movement for the 21st Century.
16 Mandara, Jelani, Fatima Varner, Nereira Greene and Scott Richman. "Intergenerational Family Predictors of the Black-White Achievement Gap." Journal of Educational Psychology 101, no. 4 (November 2009): 867-78.
17 Grubb, W. Norton. "Dynamic Inequality I: Using NELS88 To Analyze Schooling Outcomes Over Time," Journal of Educational Psychology May 2006.

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