Millions Have Been Given to Boost High School Graduation Rates.... And?

We report now and then on efforts by K-12 funders to boost high school graduation rates. It's a difficult stream of funding to isolate and examine, because so many existing strategies fall under multiple rubrics. Another thing is that some funders are less fixated on how many kids graduate than the number of graduates prepared to go to college. The Gates Foundation is most notable in this regard. 

America's Promise Alliance is one funder-backed effort that is quite explicit in its focus on graduation rates. Along with the Alliance for Excellent Education(AEE), Civic Enterprises and Everyone Graduates Center,it launched the GradNation campaign 10 years ago, with a goal of raising high school graduation rates to 90 percent by the year 2020. In an economy in which most new jobs require some level of postsecondary education, a high school diploma is no longer the ticket to the American middle class that it once was. But successful high school completion remains an essential step in preparing for the education and training needed for jobs in a knowledge-driven economy.

Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, chair America's Promise, which includes among its supporters State Farm, Boeing, AT&T Foundation, GE FoundationTarget, Pearson, and the Citi and Ford foundations. AEE's roster of supporters also includes such education funding giants such as the GatesHewlettCarnegie, and Irvine foundations. 

Recently, America's Promise and AEE paused to take stock of the quest to boost high school graduation rates. 

The result is some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the nation's high school graduation rate has reached an all-time high of 82.3 percent. That's according to a new report from Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. The report, "Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates," was prepared in partnership with America's Promise and AEE, a group which also has some major corporate and philanthropic partners. The study's authors analyzed data on 2014 high school graduation rates.

Now for the bad news: Despite the record-high graduation rate, the same report also finds that the nation is not on track to meet the goal of 90 percent by the year 2020 set by America's Promise and the Alliance. While one state has already achieved that 90 percent goal (take a bow, Iowa) and another 20 states appear to be on track, the nation as a whole is not on track to meet that 90 percent milestone. 

But there's more good news, or at least a way forward. While delivering the unfortunate finding that the nation is off track, the report has identified some course corrections — and educators, nonprofits and funders would do well to pay attention.

Analyzing the data behind the nation's high school graduation rates, the GradNation report identified a major roadblock to that 90 percent goal: low-graduation-rate high schools, defined as high schools with at least 100 students and a cohort graduation rate of less than 67 percent. Many of these schools exist in urban areas and enroll large numbers of impoverished students. The report's authors recommend creating evidence-based plans to improve graduation rates in low-graduation high schools.

The findings of this report, coupled with the emphasis that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) places on low-graduation-rate high schools, provide an opportunity for school systems and education nonprofits to offer their plans and and projects to close graduation gaps between poor students and their more affluent peers. For funders, this is an opportunity to step forward to support those efforts and address the multitude of challenges that concentrated poverty poses for children's educational opportunities.

The report also points out that high schools with low graduation rates are not confined to traditional public school systems. The study found that more than half of these schools are charter, virtual, and alternative schools, often serving vulnerable populations. An array of leading funders have made a substantial commitment to the growth of charter schools, many of which have shown great success. Others not so much. Charter school advocates and funders have an opportunity to help less successful charters improve their results.

The GradNation report offers other recommendations, such as requiring states to report extended-year graduation rates. While four years is the standard by which most students complete high school, some states report five- and even six-year rates. Requiring all states to report extended graduation rates would provide a more complete picture of the nation's high school graduates.