Dropout Rates Dropping, but Don't Celebrate Yet

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High school graduation rates are one of education's perennial bad-news stories. How bad? In 2008, there were 1,746 "dropout factories," high schools that graduate fewer than 60% of their students. But according to a new report released on Tuesday, there is finally some good news to talk about. First, the national graduation rate inched up from 72% in 2001 to 75% in 2008. There were 261 fewer dropout factories in 2008 than in 2002. And during that six-year period, 29 states improved their graduation rates, with two of them — Wisconsin and Vermont — reaching almost a 90% rate.

But don't call in the cast of Glee just yet. According to the report, by Johns Hopkins University, along with two education-oriented groups, America's Promise Alliance and Civic Enterprises, eight states had graduation rates below 70% in 2008, and 2.2 million students still attend dropout factories. An achievement gap also persists: only 64% of Hispanic students and 62% of African Americans graduated in 2008, while 81% of white students did.

These shortfalls carry enormous costs for students as well as for taxpayers. In today's economy, dropouts have few options, a poor quality of life and almost no economic mobility. In 2009, the average person with a college degree earned about $1,015 a week, while the average high school dropout earned just $454. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is 5.2% for those with a college degree and 14.6% for dropouts. The Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., estimates that dropouts each year cost the nation more than $300 billion in lost income.

Dropouts are an issue in all communities. And for years, low graduation rates were masked by states and school districts that used misleading counting methods to make the dropout situation appear better than it was. Officials would, for example, report only the percentage of students who left in a particular year rather than the cumulative total for each cohort of ninth-graders. (That's like looking at a credit card's monthly interest charge instead of its annual rate.) But reformers have managed to put an end to that particular habit: as part of the push over the past decade for greater accountability in schools, states are now required to report on graduation rates in a more standardized and rigorous way.

Now that we have more reliable numbers, the report — which is titled Building a Grad Nation (and for which, I should note, I participated in some of the lead-up work) — found that just as the dropout problem is more acute in some schools than in others, success in addressing the issue is varied too. New York and Tennessee, for example, saw substantial improvements in graduation rates, while Arizona, Nevada and Utah slid noticeably in the wrong direction.

And while it's true that some of the recent progress could be the result of quick fixes — like low-quality programs that allow students to earn high school credits without actually meeting standards — one of the report's co-authors, Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins researcher and a nationally recognized dropout expert, told me that in order to see the sustained progress that is occurring in some places, "you have to change the underlying dynamics" in schools and school systems.

He's right, which is why the Grad Nation report is at once welcome news but also a frustrating example of political impotence. Strategies to substantially improve outcomes can be deployed today. The steps the report identifies are well known and fairly obvious: smaller schools, effective teaching, accurate data and challenging standards that engage students, plus holding schools accountable for graduation rates and implementing early-warning systems that use data to identify and support students who are at risk of dropping out. Yet the report's authors told me they are worried that the volatile political environment in many states, coupled with the more than 1,600 new state legislators and 29 new governors entering office in 2011, could make it harder to push through necessary reforms.

To help focus such efforts, the report calls for a Civic Marshall Plan. And just in case that metaphor was lost on anyone, Colin Powell, the founding chairman of America's Promise, co-wrote the forward for the report, an open letter calling the nation to action.

Truly transforming America's education system into something envied the world over will require more innovation. Yet in the meantime, as shown by the new data, we can do substantially better simply by acting on what we know now. Which means that Grad Nation is good news but also a wake-up call. Three in four students graduating from high school is nothing to celebrate in a country like ours.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, usually runs on Thursdays.