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Race and Beyond: Good News: America Graduates Record Level of High School Students

Graduates at Joplin High School

SOURCE: AP/Charlie Riedel

Graduates from Joplin High School listen to speakers during commencement ceremonies in Joplin, MO in May 2012.

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For a change of pace, how would you like to hear some good news, followed by some promising news?

The good news: Contrary to the dire accounts of how poorly American schoolchildren are doing in their class work, the nation’s high school graduation rate is rising at an astonishingly rapid pace. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the national high school graduation rate topped 80 percent for the first time in history and is expected to exceed 90 percent by 2020.

In a report released in March, researchers Marie C. Stetser and Robert Stillwell of the National Center for Education Statistics analyzed two separate measures of four-year on-time graduation rates and dropout rates for the 2010–11 and 2011–12 school years. They discovered that national graduation rate for public high schools was 79 percent for 2010–11, and it rose to 80 percent in 2011–12. Simply stated, for both periods surveyed, Stetser and Stillwell estimate that “nearly 4 out of 5 students receive[d] a regular high school diploma within 4 years of starting 9th grade for the first time.”

But this report’s good news continues. As Politico reported, “The improvement has been driven by steep gains among African-American and Hispanic students and by progress in shutting down hundreds of troubled urban schools dubbed ‘dropout factories.’”

The bottom line: Over the past decade, an estimated 1.7 million more American schoolchildren have received diplomas than would have if graduation rates were stagnant over that period.

John Gomperts, president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance—a coalition of nonprofits, businesses, and educators that works to improve public school graduation rates—was euphoric over the results. “People said these numbers would never move, and they were wrong,” Gomperts wrote to me in an email. “The numbers are moving.”

So that’s the good news, and it’s worth celebrating.

But let’s not get too ebullient. If 80 percent of the kids are graduating, that means one in five—an uncomfortably high number of school kids that will soon become a chunk our nation’s workforce—are not graduating on time, or at all. Sadly, as Stetser and Stillwell point out in their report, those who aren’t graduating are among the most disadvantaged in our society, including disabled students, racial and ethnic minorities, and low-income students. That’s a looming disaster not only for them but also for their families and communities. Beyond the specific and personal, high rates of school failure just aren’t healthy for our economy or nation.

So where’s that promising news I suggested earlier? For that, let’s return to America’s Promise Alliance, which released a report earlier today that offered some hopeful insights about how to assist those who don’t finish high school.

The information provided in “Don’t Call Them Dropouts”—that’s actually the report’s title—is based on conversations with young people about their lives.

Jonathan F. Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise at Tufts University, which conducted the research for the report, said that changing the way the nation talks about young people who don’t finish high school is more than just politically correct nomenclature.

“They don’t feel they’ve dropped out of anything,” Zaff said in a statement released with the report. “They reluctantly concluded that school was either nonresponsive or irrelevant to their urgent needs, so leaving became a necessity for them to take control of their lives.”

That’s why people such as education activist Alma J. Powell, chairwoman of America’s Promise Alliance, are pushing for a new way of speaking about the kids who don’t finish high school.

“We’ve stopped calling these young people ‘dropouts,’” Powell said last month during her remarks at the 2014 Building A GradNation Summit in Washington, D.C. “When telling us why they left, they talk very little about what happened in school and very much about what happened in life, the obstacles and choices that they faced in getting to school and staying in school.”

Following up on the Stetser and Stillwell report, Gomperts told me in an interview that changing the narrative surrounding why young people don’t finish school was one of the findings contained in “Don’t Call Them Dropouts,” a report which he called the largest nationwide examination of young adults who failed to graduate. According to Gomperts:

We set out to talk to lots of young people who didn’t graduate from high school on time, or in many instances at all. What we found is that issues and challenges [associated with finishing high school] have more to do with life than with school. That far too many kids are growing up in tragically toxic environments. That kids, like all adults, seek connections and those connections can take them in the right direction or the wrong direction.

Gomperts told me that not enough people understand the problems young people face that knock them off track toward high school graduation, often focusing solely on such concerns as school curriculum or teacher salaries. Those issues are important, he said, but if you talk to the kids, you will discover their concerns often lie elsewhere.

“Our basic idea is that if we don’t get the problem right, we almost certainly won’t get the solution right,” Gomperts said. For example, students are more likely to leave school as a result of many factors, not a singular event. The cluster of reasons includes homelessness (87 percent more likely to leave school), an incarcerated parent (79 percent more likely), frequent moves from house to house (50 percent more likely), or changing schools often (50 percent more likely).

As troubling as these findings might seem at first reporting, they’re actually a marker of progress pointing the way toward an eventual solution. Graduation advocates are listening to those who have strayed off the path to success. What they’re discovering serves a valuable purpose in helping ensure that the shrinking slice of at-risk students stays on course toward a high school diploma. That’s good and promising news.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

Applications are now open for the next class of CAP Leadership Institute.  For more information about the Fellows program or to apply, please follow this link. The deadline for applying is July 18, 2014.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here