80% Grad Rates: Great Progress, More to Do

The nation quietly passed an important milestone a couple years ago…and we’re just learning about it now–welcome to education data cira 2014. Its crazy that the CEO of Ford can hold a press conference on February 1 and discuss his worldwide January sales and we’re still trying to figure out who graduated from American high schools three years ago. K-12 is 20 years behind other sectors in terms of tracking and using performance data.  As noted Monday, I’m afraid privacy hysteria has already slowed the already glacial pace of data improvement.

But on to celebrating what we can: the U.S. is finally graduating 4 of 5 students.  The 80% mark is a big deal.  Secretary Duncan celebrated the milestone by wearing number 80 in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. In a blog post, titled “Why I Wear 80,” the Secretary asserts, “Often in sports, but rarely in education, do you hear about the heroes whose skill, hard work, creativity, and tenacity resulted in the achievement the whole country should know about.  We should all take heart from the passionate, caring work being done in classrooms, schools, and communities across the country.”

I want to recognize just a few of the people that helped achieve this important milestone:

  • Bill Milliken has been fighting this war for 50 years starting with street academies in NYC in the 60s and launching Communities in Schools in 1977.
  • Ted Sizer published Horace’s Compromise in 1984 and called BS on the big tracked impersonal high schools. The same year he launched the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), a national network of small personalized schools.
  • Dennis Littky led the first school to join CES and then launched Big Picture, a national network of personalized high schools.
  • Innovative new school development began in NYC in the 1970. Seymour Fliegel, first as the Director of Alternative Schools and then as Deputy Superintendent, changed the education landscape by creating a network of small schools as an alternative to traditional schools. That work laid the groundwork for the 400 new schools developed by community partners, particularly New Visions led by Bob Hughes, while Joel Klein was chancellor.
  • Steven Adamowski launched the portfolio work in Cincinnati in 1998 that led to big improvements in grad rates. Ray Daniels launched small learning communities in Kansa City Kansas in 1999 that led to a great improvement story.
  • Bill & Melinda Gates made enormous contributions to this effort sponsoring about 1200 new high schools and 800 high school improvement projects.
  • As head of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Bob Wise has provided almost a decade of national leadership on the graduation gap.

Charter management networks like Alliance, Green Dot, IDEA, KIPP Uplift, YES have made a big contribution to better grad rates and college preparedness.

Perhaps least appreciated, the expansion of credit recovery and dropout recovery programs has boosted grad rates in the last five years (i.e., not fully incorporated into the belated and celebrated 80% rate).
“But, as Duncan said, “I see 80% as a starting point. We have so much further to go – for the one in five students who don’t graduate; for the many who graduate less than fully prepared for college; and for the groups of students that, despite recent progress, are achieving and graduating at lower rates.”
For more on improving grad rates, see:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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