Spurred on by increased federal oversight and hard work by teachers, parents and students, the number of U.S. high school dropouts has decreased – falling to 750,000 in 2012 from 1 million in 2008.
Now, the nation’s governors are in the driver’s seat: That’s because the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) shifts power from the nation’s capital to state capitals as the new legislation replaces No Child Left Behind. A laser focus on graduation rates is necessary because of the tremendous economic potential in increasing those rates.
Right now, more than 4,000 students are still dropping out every school day, with 1,235 high schools failing to graduate at least one-third of their students. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, meeting the GradNation goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate would likely create more than 65,000 new jobs annually and boost gross domestic product by $11.5 billion a year. And that is for just one high school class.
Many governors have already grabbed the wheel. In their annual “state of the state” addresses earlier this year, 17 governors mentioned the importance of high school graduation rates. These governors represented both parties and all regions of the country.
Many of them directly addressed the connection between improved educational outcomes and economic benefits.
To turn this economic potential into reality, here are six ways governors can seize this opportunity for leadership, improve thousands of underperforming schools, and ensure that all students graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today’s economy:
1. Use accurate data to make decisions: Governors should commit to using the gold standard — the adjusted cohort graduation rate — to measure how many students are graduating from high school on time and to identify and support high schools where one-third or more of students do not graduate as required under the new law.
2. Focus on the students who need it most: Graduation rates for students of color, students from low-income families, English language learners, and students with disabilities still lag dramatically. While national graduation rate gaps have narrowed over the past four years, the gap in high school graduation rates between Latino and white students grew in nine states. The gap between African American and white students grew in ten states. State efforts should focus on identifying those gaps and taking the steps necessary to close them.
3. Direct resources to schools that need them most: Governors should use funding targeted for school improvement purposes for high-quality, evidence-based interventions that include the most promising approaches for school improvement in schools that have the lowest-performing students.
4. Do not lower the bar or game the system: Governors should require that high school graduation rates carry sufficient weight within state accountability systems to trigger interventions in high schools that have low graduation rates or gaps between subgroups of students. This can be done in part by ensuring that state accountability systems report graduation and achievement rates of traditionally underserved students rather than hiding the poor performance of certain subgroups of students within the overall performance of a school.
5. Ask hard questions: Multiple pathways to a diploma can be a good thing, as long as all routes provide young people with equal opportunity and equal rigor. The nation needs pathways, not loopholes. Now is the right time for governors to ask hard questions about the opportunities provided to students in high school: Do all students have the opportunity to earn a meaningful diploma that signifies they are ready for postsecondary education?
6. Take this opportunity to finally connect K–12 education with postsecondary education: Ensuring that more students graduate from high school is an important first step, but simply earning a diploma is no longer enough in today’s society. Every student needs additional training and education after high school, so a high school diploma must be the jumping-off point rather than the end point.
Governors can take the long view by collecting and studying postsecondary education outcome data. Which and how many students are going on to enroll in postsecondary education? How many are graduating? What is the remediation rate?
To ensure that all young people graduate with a diploma that signifies they are ready for college and a career, governors can bring K–12 educators, postsecondary educators, and employers together to meet and talk about what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate.
ESSA provides states, districts, and schools with both the authority and the flexibility they need to innovate and implement evidence-based school improvement efforts to continue progress on the national high school graduation rate and ensure that all students graduate with deeper learning outcomes, including critical thinking, collaboration, and other skills they need to succeed in today’s economy.
But this authority and flexibility must be balanced with an unwavering commitment to equity. While the nation has made remarkable progress, major challenges in educational opportunity and quality persist, and now governors are in a position to lead.
Governors can take steps right now to ensure that all students — regardless of their background or zip code — have access to a high-quality education that will secure their individual futures, as well as that of the nation.
Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia, is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.
John Gomperts is president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance.
Both organizations are leaders in the GradNation campaign to increase the nation’s on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.