How to raise graduation rates

What can we do to stem the tide of dropouts and help more students earn a high school diploma? The Hechinger Report and the Washington Monthly look at three cities that have tried to improve low graduation rates.

All three cities have taken remarkably similar approaches to the problem. Those approaches fall into two general categories: fixing existing low-performing high schools, often by breaking them into smaller schools; and creating alternative schools and programs—“multiple pathways,” in the jargon of the trade—that cater to the diverse needs of those kids who are on the verge of dropping out or already have done so.

New York City, which has created many small schools, has made significant progress.

Philadelphia is also improving, though not as dramatically.

Portland, Oregon, with more white and middle-class students, has made no progress at all. The city sends 20 percent of students to alternative schools with lots of support and very low expectations. Very few earn a diploma.

Also in the package: Small schools are beautiful — if they have real autonomy, good teaching and high standards, writes Thomas Toch. He also has a piece on the challenge of lowering the drop-out rate while raising academic standards.

Only between 70 and 75 percent of students who enter high school graduate, and, of those who do, less than half of them are college ready. Forty percent of community college freshman and 20 percent of students entering four-year colleges have to take remedial classes.

Twenty-four states now require graduation exams which typically test eighth-grade math concepts and tenth-grade language arts skills. Nineteen of the states grant waivers to students who cannot pass the test.

Next year, the U.S. Education Department will require states to use a uniform method of calculating dropout rates: the numbers are expected to go way up. That will give states and districts even more incentive to lower graduation requirements, Toch writes.

Schools can identify high-risk students.

If they get to struggling students early, schools can assign them tutors and mentors and closely monitor their attendances and grades. Researchers also point to another key to staving off higher dropout rates: creating a culture of high expectations in lagging high schools. When teachers and students believe in the importance of high standards and share a commitment to reaching them, much can be accomplished.

But it’s not easy to pull off, especially in large, impersonal high schools.

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  1. Cynical says:

    If you want graduation rates to go up without lowering standards, a diploma has to mean something to the student.  They have to be willing to work for it.

    Unless there are exit tests for graduation, a diploma does not even mean functional literacy.  Is that worth working for?  Does it matter, if you are a third- or fourth-generation welfare recipient who doesn’t know anyone with a job or even a diploma?

    Change is needed, and most of it has nothing to do with schools.

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    Yep change is needed and most of it has nothing to do with schools but the change has to start somewhere…school would be the best place IMHO for the change to start as it touches the lives of ALL children and their families…so…schools/educators are you willing to raise the stakes, hold your ground, raise the bar and do the right thing for the kids?

  3. Cynical says:

    Making teenage single mothers work to pay for their in-school child care is one way of raising stakes. Make them do it 60 hours a week if they drop out.

  4. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Do we really know why kids drop out of school? I’m sure that there are many reasons and I doubt that the kids themselves could tell you. I wonder whether starting reading so young that many are not developmentally ready for it doesn’t set up a cascade of events that results in dropping out. Can we fix a problem when we don’t understand its etiology?

  5. the graduation rate measurement plugs many excuses used to disguise low graduation rates
    – comparison of graduation numbers vs. same group 4 years earlier
    – counting of transfers in and out
    – only remove students who transfer to another diploma program or move out of the country

    It does leave at least one loophole: transferring students to a dropout school to protect the scores of the main school

  6. As some have noted, raising the graduation rate is nothing without raising skills.

    Small schools might keep kids more motivated, but are they learning more?

  7. Here’s my suggestion: Allow kids to choose one of two tracks at the age of 14. The first would be a standard diploma or “academic” diploma which feeds into a four year college. The other would be a “basic skills” diploma completed at the age of 16. Once successfully completed it qualifies the student for two years of trade school, an internship, or an apprenticeship at public expense.

    The college for all stuff real leaves those kids who have little ambition for it with few tangible options. Give them a track that once completed offers them real economic independence.

  8. We need to raise graduation rates globally! At Leaping Stone we are taking the first step, building schools in Dedeke, Togo. Check out the progress we are making in West Africa at

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Used to be, you could get “workingpapers” at fourteen, or even twelve, to work in restricted conditions.
    Among other things, organized labor doesn’t like that.
    Organized labor likes illegal immigration because they get dem votes along with the competition, but with lower working ages, they only get competition.
    There isn’t much you can do if the parents–presuming they’re in the picture–don’t care.
    What happens, with one of these intense programs, when, after years of dragging the kid along by the scruff of the neck with tutors, mentors, small classes, individualized instruction, you tell him he’s on his own? Yup, kid, you graduated after personalized attention from two or three adults each week for the last six years. Now, go get’em, champ.
    Had a plumber come by yesterday to discover the problem isn’t the plumbing. Gave me a break, only charged $50.
    But you don’t get to be a plumber just because plumbers don’t go to college, just like unmotivated dropouts with a record of minor crimes don’t go to college. You need brains, motivation, work ethic, self-discipline, and people skills.
    Classroom-centered book learning is not all there is, and those not having it do not fall fall into one undifferentiated mass.


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