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High School Graduation Rates Rise, But Still Appallingly Low

According to new study conducted by former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s advocacy group – America’s Promise Alliance – the national high school graduation rate rose 3.5 percentage points from 2001 to 2009. Interestingly, the organization attributes these modest results – at least in part – to efforts spearheaded by student intervention specialists who persuade students to finish their studies.

The graduation rate was 75 percent in 2009, meaning 1 in 4 students fails to get a diploma in four years, researchers found. That's well below the organization's goal of 90 percent by 2020.

Researchers found that the number of "dropout factories," schools that fail to graduate more than 60 percent of students on time, had dropped by more than 450 between 2002 and 2010, but that 1,550 remain.

"Big gains are possible if you work hard at it, and if you don't focus on it, you're going to go backward," said Robert Balfanz, a report author and director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.

The increase in graduation rates was primarily because of growth in 12 states, with New York and Tennessee showing double digit gains since 2002, according to the research. At the other end, 10 states had declines: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Rhode Island and Utah.

So far, only Wisconsin has met the 90 percent benchmark, although Vermont is close.


While these statistics are certainly worth celebrating – and reflect a upward national trend in terms of higher graduate rates – too many public school students are still dropping out. Indeed, a country where 25 percent of students cannot – or choose not – to graduate high school is unacceptable. And, of course, since it’s estimated that graduates will earn $130,000 more over their lifetime than those who drop out, convincing teenagers to complete their studies is not unrelated to boosting median household incomes, growing the American economy, and producing a more enlightened citizenry.

One of the ways the Obama administration – and education reformers nationwide – believe they can address this issue by raising the mandatory school attendance age to 18. But perhaps a more comprehensive approach – one that has grown increasingly popular in recent years – is giving students the opportunity to choose where they receive their education. In many cases, students drop out of high school because they are unhappy with the rigid curriculum or do not feel their school environment is conducive to learning. The success of charter schools, for example, which have provided alternative paths to learning for low-income students since the early 1990s, continue to boast graduation rates that far exceed national averages.


Of course, the first step to solving America’s truancy crisis is recognizing we have a problem. On the other hand, implementing bold and sweeping reforms – like what Governor Bobby Jindal is attempting in Louisiana – is perhaps the only way to bring about the systemic changes our education system so desperately requires.

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