How To: Make Every Child a Graduate

In Just 3 Steps

Thousands of high school students will not receive a diploma this graduation season. Here’s how we can help every student become a graduate.

It’s graduation season, which means it’s time for tossing mortarboards, giving speeches, and frustrating the newly-minted graduates in your family by peppering them with questions about their future plans.

But as we cheer the millions of high school graduates who will embark on the next phase of their lives this week, we should recall the 1.2 million students who left school this year without a high school diploma—and take action to raise the graduation rate above its current (rather pathetic) level of 70 percent.

Young adults without high school degrees will find it harder to compete in the American job market, to say nothing of an increasingly global economy. The Department of Labor estimates that nearly 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the United States will require at least some postsecondary education. On the global stage, when compared to their peers in other industrialized nations, our country’s 15-year-olds rank 15th in reading, 23rd in math, and 30th in problem-solving skills.

How can we help every student become a graduate? The Center for American Progress and Jobs for the Future have crafted a plan called the Graduation Promise Act to raise the graduation rate—in just three steps.

Step One: Create real-world laboratories for finding strategies to help kids succeed.


We want to help students graduate—but we don’t want to let them off the hook academically. The Graduation Promise Act proposes that we create real-world laboratories of learning innovation by investing in school districts that have already begun to enjoy some success in raising their graduation rates without watering down their lesson plans.

The investment—which will come in the form of competitive, five-year grants—will allow these schools to become testing grounds for the implementation of innovative policies. They’ll draw upon groundbreaking research on leading indicators, evidence-based practices, and innovative policies being tried elsewhere to come up with new strategies to help kids succeed. For example, they’ll use data to make decisions about what teaching models and school programs will help them reach different segments of the population of high school kids not on track to graduate, and develop quick-response strategies to get students back on course to finish school.

Step Two: Shamelessly steal the good ideas and spread the strategies that work.

Though graduation rates are low throughout the country, some school systems have already come up with effective policies and school models that allow them to raise graduation rates while keeping academic standards high.

We should invest in helping to spread these school systems’ winning formula. The GPA proposes awarding competitive five-year grants to school development organizations, youth development groups, postsecondary institutions, districts, and states that will fund efforts to copy and disseminate proven recipes for success.

The funds would go toward supporting the spread of organizational and instructional practices and school models that have proven effective in helping students who are not on track to graduate. They’d also build or strengthen the capacity of existing and proposed school and youth development organizations to become centers for replicating these proven-effective models and practices on a regional or national scale.

Step Three: Take quick action to fix dropout factories.


There are about 2,000 large, underperforming high schools across the country that lose 40 percent or more of their students before graduation. These schools represent only 15 percent of the roughly 14,000 public high schools in the country, but they produce more than half of the nation’s dropouts. They often face challenges like high levels of poverty in the surrounding community, a teaching staff that is discouraged or lacks experience, or a system of practices and procedures that are so rigidly in place that they defy efforts to improve the way the school is run.

We’ll make a lot of progress in addressing the nation’s dropout crisis if we fund efforts to address these challenges and quickly turn dropout factories around. We can start by beginning to implement in these schools some proven-effective strategies to raise graduation rates, such as using early warning indicators that kids are slipping off the graduation track and giving ninth-graders catch-up and acceleration programs that will give them a strong start in high school. The implementation of the first two of the GPA’s steps to raise graduation rates could also mean the development of more practices and models for helping kids attain their diplomas.

Late in 1989, policymakers set a goal to raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent within 10 years. We’re late and far short of achieving that goal. And doors of opportunity are being closed on U.S. students as a result, when considering both the national and global economies.

Putting the recommendations of the Graduation Promise Act into practice would take annual funding about 2.5 billion each year. This money would enable the development of policies, interventions, strategies, and models that build on and extend our current knowledge base about ways to help students succeed. It would also fund efforts to immediately apply the growing number of policies and programs educators know to be effective to the 2,000 poorly-performing schools that produce more than half the country’s dropouts.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.