Graduation Rates Rising But Still Not High Enough

It can work! In states across the country, the seemingly intractable issue of dropouts, dropouts and more dropouts, actually has improved significantly, shows a report released today by the deans of dropout research, Bob Balvanz and John Bridgland.

No one silver bullet deserves all the credit: Rather, a careful combination of high standards and expectations for students, training for teachers and the time in their days to use it, plus early warning systems and the support of state policy-makers and community organizations made it possible for more than 120,000 additional students to earn diplomas in 2008, compared to 2001.

“So much of the time, the news is doom and gloom. For communities that are working so hard and feeling like they’re pushing a rock up a hill, they can stop and turn around and see that it does work. They can believe,” said Marguerite Kondracke, president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, a national partnership of corporations, nonprofits and advocacy groups who have taken on the dropout issue.

Not coincidentally, many of the strategies that work, plus the report’s recommendations for further growth, echo the NEA 12-Point Action Plan to prevent dropouts. Both stress early intervention as well as improving career education and workforce readiness programs, involving families and communities in education, creating smaller learning communities and gathering accurate data. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that today’s report names NEA and its partners at the American Federation for Teachers “at the forefront of national efforts to combat the dropout crisis.”

“Although we are not satisfied with the dropout rate, the report shows progress and that’s promising,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “We know that the commitment educators demonstrate every day does make a difference in students’ success. Our members want to make certain that every high school student walks across the stage, diploma in hand, prepared for the next stage in life.”

The good news is this: Since 2002, the number of so-called “dropout factories” has declined by 261, or 13 percent, according to the report, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenges in Ending the High School Dropout Rate. More than half of states showed increasing graduation rates — Tennessee and New York blazed 15 and 10 percentage point increases, respectively. And, in Vermont and Wisconsin, graduation rates nudged 90 percent.

But it’s anything but a signal to rest, Balfanz warned.

“We made more progress than we thought possible, but it also tells you that we have to go five times faster in the next decade to make it to 90 percent [nationwide],” he said. It’s not impossible: To reach that benchmark, 23 states would need to equal the rate of growth achieved by Alabama; nine would need to equal New York’s; and seven would need to equal Tennessee’s. The only state that needs unprecedented improvement is Nevada, whose graduation rate slipped 20 percent – and whose state legislature cut their education budget last year by 6.9 percent.

“We hope this report will not only spark additional conversations about improvement strategies but will also encourage the various stakeholders to act,” Van Roekel said. “All of us educators, parents, community members and policymakers—share the responsibility of making sure every student graduates from high school.”


In 2007, one out of 10 American high schools were “dropout factories,” according to Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University research scientist and former NEA Research Scholar. What that means is less than 60 percent of the incoming freshman at these schools would ever see a diploma. The campuses could be found mostly in the South, especially Georgia and Mississippi, and large urban centers, like New York or Houston. Twenty-five percent of these schools were the only high schools in their towns, and more than half served almost all Black or Hispanic students.

But Balfanz refused to point the finger at teachers. He wrote, “The teachers, administrators, and students in these schools are often going to heroic lengths…The fault lies not with the schools or their teachers or students but with the intended and unintended consequences of decisions made at the city, state, and federal levels to create a subset of under-resourced, over-challenged, and non-supported schools…”

Since then, the stars have aligned in several places. The original report, which made a splash in school districts and communities across the country, brought together coalitions of policy-makers, private foundations and non-profit community groups, as well as educators. In Tennessee especially, it boosted ongoing reform efforts, which included an $8.5 million achievement-gaps project in middle schools around Chattanooga, Tennessee, jointly funded by the local Lyndhurst Foundation and the NEA Foundation.

There needs to be acknowledgment that this work is additional work for teachers – and “it needs to be considered as such and treated as such” with additional time built into their days, Balfanz said. This includes the benchmarking of curriculum to high standards, and the use of early-warning and intervention systems for lagging students. Ideally, with training for teachers, the benchmarks and early-warning systems can work effectively together.

The report also acknowledges that the path to graduation can’t be the same for every student. New programs such as early-college high schools, theme high schools, including some with vocational or science and engineering focuses, and schools with special hours for working students all make it possible for more students to graduate.

But one thing that all of these schools have in common, Balfanz says, is a new transformative energy in its classrooms and hallways. “You can pretty much walk into a school and feel the difference,” he said. “The place where it’s not happening is either a laconic or chaotic place, but the other, when they’re on the move, they’re focused. There’s a new collective belief that we can do it.”