Jason Carroll

Building a Graduation Nation

Last month the 2015 Building a Grad Nation annual Report was released. This report shows the progress that states are making towards increasing graduation rates in the US. It comes from the GradNation campaign put forth by America’s Promise Alliance, whose mission is to find ways to ensure students have the resources they need to succeed.

Building a Grad Nation Report

The goal put forth by GradNation is for the US to have a 90% graduation rate by 2020 (the current rate is 81.4%). This report shows that progress has been made for the 3rd consecutive year, but there is still much work to be done. Specifically, the report calls out 5 Drivers that need to be addressed for the US to reach its target graduation rate. These include:

  1. Low Income Students
  2. Minority Students
  3. Students with Disabilities
  4. Big Cities/Big Districts
  5. Big States

For those in the education profession, these drivers will come as no surprise. Below are key stats and additional information on each driver along with potential solutions to help.

Driver 1: Low Income Students

In 2013, the majority (51%) of students in US public schools were considered low income for the first time. Being considered low income means that students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

While the stats go on and on in the report, the important takeaway is that…

“Poor children score far below children from higher-income households in early vocabulary and literacy development, early math, and on key social skill measures.”

Because of this, it is not surprising that in half of US states, graduation rates of low income students are 15% lower than their middle or high income peers. It is clear that if a 90% graduation rate is to be obtained this must be addressed.

One of the best places to start is with states who have already addressed this issue successfully. A surprising fact for me was that my home state of KY has the highest graduation rate for low income students (85.4%), which is only slightly less than the overall graduation rate for the state and higher than the overall graduation rate for the nation. This makes it an excellent state to further study.

Additional recommendations from the study include ensuring adequate funding for early childhood and wellness programs, continuing to fully fund nutrition assistance programs, and making sure schools with the highest percent of low income student receive appropriate funding to help level the playing field.

Driver 2: Minority Students

From 2001 – 2011 the Hispanic/Latino enrollment alone increased from 17% to 24%.  During this same time, enrollment of white/caucasian students fell by 8%. In fact, the 2014 – 2015 school year is projected to be the first year in which the total enrollment of minority students surpasses the enrollment of white students.

Despite the growing minority population in schools, graduation rates remain lower for Hispanic and African American students than their White and Asian peers. Reasons for this vary, but similar to low income students, many minority students face limited access to supports that have been shown to have a positive impact on achievement. Others spend their day being taught in English only to return to a home where no English is spoken. This makes parental support with reading, math and other assignments nearly impossible.

On a positive note however, a few states, including Texas (which already has a Hispanic/Latino enrollment over 30%) are leading the nation in minority graduation rates. Hopefully other states can learn from this success and replicate those results. Some of the solutions offered in the report include reforming disproportionately-applied discipline policies and increasing access to supports such as adult role models and free standardized tests (ACT, SAT, etc…) that are critical to future success.

Driver 3: Students with Disabilities

Over 13% of students are identified with a disability in the US today. While this percentage varies from state to state, one common factor is that the vast majority of these students are taught in the general education classroom and can most likely meet regular diploma requirements with the appropriate supports in place.

Unfortunately, while it is estimated that most of these students can receive a regular diploma, many do not. The national graduation rate for students with disabilities is only 61.9%. This is 20% below the nation’s average.

Policy recommendations for this driver mostly involve the US Department of Education and states better clarifying who should be included in this category and increasing access to a standard diploma. For example, one specific recommendation is that states (not districts) should decide what allowances students with disabilities should be granted when earning a standard diploma. This is difficult however due to a wide variety of diverse students being grouped into a single disabilities category. Some students may only need minor supports like assistive technology to write, but others may need more substantial interventions. I will address some common supports that can assist a wide variety of learners at the end of this post.

Drivers 4 and 5: Big Cities/Districts and Big States

I’ve combined the final two drivers that need to be addressed into one section because they both deal with size. There are over 14,000 school districts in the US today and the top 500 (in terms of size) educate over 40% of all students. From a state perspective, only 10 states are responsible for educating over half of the nation’s student population.

These big cities, districts and states are included as a key driver because it will be very difficult to make progress without their improvement. For example, the report states…

“Though the challenge may seem large, to get to a 90 percent graduation rate for all students, the nation will need just 310,000 more graduates in the Class of 2020 than in the Class of 2013…”

The top 10 districts (in terms of size) alone serve over 3.75 million students. The average graduation rate for these districts combined is 74%. A 10% increase in graduation rates (which would put these districts near the national average) would be more than enough to reach the 90% goal.

Key Takeaways

When asking the question “What can we do now?” it’s worth taking a look at the similarities across drivers to see what solutions can have the biggest immediate impact. While more funding and better policies are great, these take time to get approved, and in some cases take even longer to see a return from the investment.

For example, many of the largest states also happen to contain the largest districts. Many of these districts in turn happen to house the largest percentage of low income students, minority students and students with disabilities. It also turns out that many low income students happen to be a minority, and several of these students have been identified with a disability.

Knowing this, what types of supports could be made available to all students that may help to increase achievement? For example, we know that classrooms are focused on teaching students to read until around grade three, then efforts shift from  learning to read to reading to learn. But what happens to kids that do not master reading by that time? Research tells us that they will continue to struggle throughout school. In fact, reading achievement is a key indicator of dropout rates.

Providing technology supports such as text-to-speech to struggling readers can provide students with access to content while they are still being taught reading strategies. Notice that I am not saying technology is a replacement for reading instruction; only that it can provide students with access to content while they are continuing to learn to read so they will not be behind.

Similar supports such as word prediction and graphic organizers can be applied to the writing environment for any grade level or content area. For example, students who speak English as a second language sometimes struggle when writing in English. Advanced word prediction software can help to reduce the barriers these students face so that they can focus on writing and not be limited to using only the words they can spell correctly. For additional technology supports for English Language Learners be sure to check out my previous post on the topic.

Due to my background I am being biased towards technology supports here. There are also many teaching strategies, interventions and educational programs that do not involve technology, but have been shown to increase achievement however. The important thing is that these technologies, strategies and initiatives are identified and put in place for the students that need them most.

Hopefully this post can serve as a catalyst towards  a larger conversation around what supports can be implemented now that will have the greatest impact on graduation rates.

Have you read the report yet? If so what ideas and additional takeaways do you have? I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section below.


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