83% graduate — but are they educated?

The U.S. high school graduation rate has hit 83 percent, rising to a new high for the fifth year in a row. “We’ve made real progress,” said President Barack Obama at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C.

President Obama greets students at Banneker High in Washington, D.C. The District has raised its high school graduation rate, but still ranks last in the nation. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

President Obama greets students at Banneker High in Washington, D.C. The District has raised its high school graduation rate, but still ranks last in the nation. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

While 90.2 percent of Asian-American students and 87.6 percent of whites earn a diploma, that falls to 77.8 percent for Latinos and 74.6 percent for blacks.

Iowa has the highest graduation rate at 90.8 percent. Washington D.C., despite rapid improvement, is at the bottom with a 68.5 percent rate.

While graduation rates are rising steadily, there’s no evidence students are better prepared for college or careers, note Anya Kametez and Cory Turner on NPR.

. . . scores of high school students on the test known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” are essentially flat, and average scores on the ACT and SAT are down.

. . . “For many students, a high school diploma is not a passport to opportunity, it’s a ticket to nowhere,” says Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a national nonprofit that’s long advocated for higher standards and graduation requirements.

High school graduation exams often require only eighth- or ninth-grade skills. Some states have dropped the exams.

Just last month, in a major school funding ruling, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher excoriated his state for watered down graduation standards that, he says, have already resulted “in unready children being sent to high school, handed degrees, and left, if they can scrape together the money, to buy basic skills at a community college.”

There are lots of ways to raise graduation rate, an excellent NPR series revealed. Monitoring students’ progress and closing “dropout factories” have helped in some places. In others, schools have fudged the numbers or used dubious “credit recovery” schemes.

Graduation rate hits 80%

The high school graduation rate hit 80 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Education Department. If progress continues, the four-year graduation rate could reach 90 percent by 2020.

Graduation rates increased 15 percentage points for Hispanic students and 9 percentage points for African American students from 2006 to 2012, with the Hispanic students graduating at 76 percent and African-American students at 68 percent, the report said.

Fewer students attend “dropout factories” — schools that graduate less than 60 percent of students.

High school grad rate could hit 90%

U.S. high schools are graduating more students and could reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, according to Building a Grad Nation by America’s Promise Alliance.

Gains were strong for minority students: African-American students saw a 6.9 percent increase in graduation rates from 2006 to 2020, and Hispanic students had a 10.4 percent increase.

In the Davis Guggenheim documentary “Waiting for Superman,” Americans learned about “dropout factories,” high schools where fewer than half of all students graduated on time. Bob Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University professor, coined that term — and in the report out Monday, he found that the number of “dropout factories” has declined. In 2011, according to the report, there were 583 fewer such schools than there were in 2002. “The schools have gotten better, and some have closed,” Balfanz said.

In 2002, 46 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanics attended a high school where most students failed to graduate. By  2011, that fell to 25 percent for backs and 17 percent for Hispanics.

‘Teetering on the ninth-grade cliff’

Washington D.C.’s middle schools are the real “dropout factories,” said HyeSook Chung of D.C. Action for Children, a non-profit advocacy group at a city council hearing. More than half of D.C. students who quit school leave in ninth grade. “If we want to improve graduation rates, we need to catch students before they are teetering on the ninth-grade cliff,” said Chung.

Chung, citing research by Johns Hopkins University, said a series of predictive markers, visible as early as sixth grade, can identify dropout candidates: a final grade of “F” in math or English, attendance below 80 percent for the year or a final “unsatisfactory” behavior mark in at least one class.

Sixth graders with one of the four markers had at least a 75 percent chance of dropping out,” Chung said. More than one drove the likelihood even higher.

She proposed an “early warning system” for students at high risk of dropping out.  I’d guess kindergarten teachers could predict who’s likely to succeed or fail.  Once warned, what next?

The District’s graduation rate is 43 percent.



Turning and turning

Turning around low-performing schools isn’t easy, conclude two new Center for American Progress reports.

In A Snapshot of SIG: A Look at Four States’ Approaches to School Turnaround, Jessica Quillin outlines how California, Tennessee, Illinois, and North Carolina have spent federal School Improvement Grants to improve their most underperforming schools.

Melissa Lazarin focuses on charter turnaround efforts in Los Angeles and Philadelphia in Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn Around The Nation’s Dropout Factories. Only 5 percent of SIG schools, including 11 high schools, have chosen to restart as charter schools. But Green Dot’s takeover of Locke High in Los Angeles and Mastery Charter‘s takeover of Shoemaker Middle School in Philadelphia show the potential.

While charter high school students don’t post higher test scores than comparable students at district schools, they’re 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to graduate and earn a high school diploma, according to a recent RAND report.

‘Click-click’ credits raise graduation rates

K-12 schools are adding — and sometimes requiring — online classes, reports the New York Times.  Failing students try to “recover” credits online; successful students take electives and Advanced Placement classes that don’t generate enough interest to justify a class. But the quality of online learning is suspect, especially for weak students.

Memphis City Schools now requires all students to take at least one course to graduate, starting with this year’s sophomores. School officials say “they want to give students skills they will need in college, where online courses are increasingly common, and in the 21st-century workplace,” the Times reports.

But it is also true that Memphis is spending only $164 for each student in an online course.

. . . “It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the teachers’ union in Miami, where 7,000 high school students were assigned to study online in computer labs this year because there were not enough teachers to comply with state class-size caps.

Idaho will give a laptop to every high school student and require four or more online courses. Critics complain the state will replace teachers with technology.

Chicago and New York City are piloting online learning programs, which include both credit recovery and advanced classes for high school students, as well as “personalized after-school computer drills in math and English for elementary students.”

Nationwide, an estimated 1.03 million students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2007-8, up 47 percent from two years earlier, according to the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education. About 200,000 students attend online schools full time, often charter schools that appeal to home-schooling families, according to another report.

There’s little research on the effectiveness of online courses for K-12 students, reports the U.S. Education Department.

Even online advocates are “dubious” about online courses that let students who’ve failed a regular class “recover” the credits, the Times reports. These “click-click credits” are used to boost graduation rates.

Sheffield High in Memphis, once a “dropout factory” with a graduation rate below 60 percent, now hopes to graduate 86 percent of the class of 2011. Online classes have helped. The district buys software for the Florida Virtual School, then pays its own teachers extra to work 10 hours a week with 150 online students.

The Times watches Daterrius Hamilton’s online English 3 course.

. . . he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

Asked about social Darwinism, the 18-year-old student did a Google search, copied a Wikipedia entry and e-mailed it to the teacher.

Online classes aren’t always money savers, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on HechingerEd. In particular, online credit-recovery classes don’t work without “some sort of teacher presence, whether virtual or physical.”

A drop in ‘dropout factories’

The number of  “dropout factories” — schools with graduation rates under 60 percent — declined by 6.4 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to a report released today for the kick-of of the Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington.

Since 2002, there’s been a 20 percent drop in the number of students attending dropout factories, concludes the report by the Johns Hopkins University Everyone Graduates Center, America’s Promise Alliance, and Civic Enterprises, which are hosting the summit with the Alliance for Excellent Education.

California, South Carolina, Illinois and North Carolina showed the most improvement, while the number of  high-dropout schools increased in Georgia, New York and Ohio. State data is here.

At the summit today, reports College Bound, Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center, suggested districts use “new comparison data on graduation rates to shape targeted efforts, follow students over time with longitudinal data to see how their high school success is linked to their postsecondary success, and look at case studies of schools that have turned around their graduation rates using enhanced student supports and early-warning systems.”

The goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate is achievable, said John Bridgeland, president of Civic Enterprises.

“We will focus in like a laser on dropout-factory high schools and look at the feeder middle schools and elementary schools,” said Bridgeland.

. . . Bridgeland said many schools have early-warning systems in place in 9th grade, but that’s too late. They should be as early as the 4th or 5th grade. Mentors can also help off-track students, and states should raise the compulsory age that students are allowed to drop out, suggested Bridgeland.

Also at the summit, Vice President Joe Biden pitched President Obama’s college-completion goals, suggesting governors link funding to performance, align high school standards with college entrance and placement standards, simplify transfers, use data to drive decisions and target adults with “some college” but no degree.

Obama’s goal — a 60 percent college graduation rate by 2020 — ignores many students, Harvard Education Professor Robert Schwartz told the Washington Post.

Schwartz heads the Pathways to Prosperity Project, which released a study in February concluding that the U.S. education system should offer greater emphasis on occupational instruction.

“What’s the strategy for the other 40 percent of people?” he said. “We can’t keep saying, ‘College for all, college for all’ and yet set targets that even if you could meet them are going to leave out very large proportions of young people.”

In Massachusetts, the highest performing state, only 54 percent of adults have earned an associate or bachelor’s degree. In Arkansas, Nevada and New Mexico, the college graduation rate is 28 percent.

Detroit schools: ‘Kids Aren’t Cars’

“Kids Aren’t Cars” blames self-serving adults — notably the teachers’ union — for the sad state of Detroit’s public schools. Only about a quarter of the city’s public high school students earn a diploma.

Education Action Group, which favors school choice, made the videos through EAG TV.

Gates vs. seniority, Ravitch

Improving education is the most important thing we can do for our country’s economy, Bill Gates told Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter after a speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers.

How can we raise student achievement in a time of austerity? Stop paying teachers more for seniority alone, Gates says.

Like master’s degrees for teachers and smaller class sizes, seniority pay, Gates says, has “little correlation to student achievement.”

. . . Gates favors a system where pay and promotion are determined not just by improvement in student test scores (an idea savaged by teachers’ unions) but by peer surveys, student feedback (surprisingly predictive of success in the classroom), video reviews and evaluation by superiors. In this approach, seniority could be a factor, but not the only factor.

Gates’ biggest adversary now is Diane Ravitch, who distrusts rich businessmen trying to shape education policy, writes Alter.

When I asked Gates about Ravitch, you could see the Micro-hard hombre who once steamrolled software competitors: “Does she like the status quo? Is she sticking up for decline? Does she really like 400-page [union] contracts? Does she think all those ‘dropout factories’ are lovely? If there’s some other magic way to reduce the dropout rate, we’re all ears.”

Ravitch critiques Gates on Bridging Differences.

On Dropout Nation, Rishawn Biddle asks: When will Diane Ravitch get her brain back?

Jay P. Greene piles on too, accusing Ravitch of selective and misleading use of evidence and intellectual dishonesty.  He links to Rebutting Ravitch by Whitney Tilson.