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GRADUATING AMERICA: New Report Examines the Opportunity for High School Reform at the Local, State, and Federal Level

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“To successfully transform or replace low graduation-rate high schools, states and districts need access to the growing base of what works and where it works.”

A new report from Jobs for the Future and The Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University takes a look at seventeen states described as the “make or break” places to reaching President Obama’s goal of making America first in educational attainment. According to the report, Graduating America: Meeting the Challenge of Low Graduation-Rate High Schools, these seventeen states produce approximately 70 percent of the nation’s high school dropouts and, although they struggle with a common challenge, these states are vastly different in their racial makeup, population, and educational reform progress.

The report identifies the characteristics of schools, districts, and states that make certain high school reform strategies more likely to succeed in certain places. It calls for policymakers, school administrators, and other education stakeholders to solve the nation’s dropout crisis by carefully matching reform efforts to a school’s unique circumstances. For example, patterns of geographic spread and concentration, state, district, and school characteristics, and socioeconomic, demographic, and political trends in a community can all impact efforts at reform.

In examining the distribution and concentration of low graduation-rate high schools within a state, the report finds three patterns. The first is the “big city challenge” which occurs when there is an “intense concentration of low graduation-rate high schools in one or two metropolitan school districts.” The report recommends that states experiencing this dilemma (Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee) should charge local officials with taking a leading role in solving the problem.

Another geographical pattern is a “statewide spread” of low graduation-rate high schools. Alabama, Arizona, California, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas fall into this category. Because the number of low-performing schools is relatively low and spread throughout the state, the report argues that these states have the best chance at making meaningful progress. It is recommended that state officials take the lead in tackling the dropout problem in these states.

The third pattern is a “statewide crisis,” in which a state has “high concentrations of high schools with low graduation rates that are widespread across the state.” States in this category have some of the nation’s lowest overall graduation rates and include Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Carolina. Due to the pervasiveness of the problem and the fact that most of these states are currently experiencing budget problems, the report calls for a larger federal role. (Read more about Georgia’s struggle with low graduation rates in a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution story).

Graduating America also analyses district, school, and student characteristics such as school size, student to teacher ratios, the percentage of students living in poverty, and the percentage of minority students. Additionally, it examines factors such as economic conditions, population growth, the rate at which a community is becoming multicultural, and the overall community commitment to improving education and advancing opportunity for young people. For example, the report finds eleven of the seventeen “make or break” states were among the top fifteen states with the nation’s highest unemployment rates in 2008–09.

“The go-it-alone approach of leaving it to failing schools to fix themselves has not worked,” said Robert Balfanz, report coauthor and codirector of The Everyone Graduates Center. “With the federal government ready to invest billions of dollars into turning around low-performing schools, the time is right to form the federal-state-local and community partnerships needed to transform or replace the low graduation-rate high schools that drive the nation’s dropout crisis.”

The report makes several recommendations for action at the federal level:

  • Require states seeking American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of “Race to the Top” funding to use analytic data on graduation rates and low graduation-rate high schools as part of their plans for turning around failing schools.
  • Build the capacity of states, districts, and schools to implement appropriate high school reform strategies.
  • Designate additional federal innovation funding for the development and replication of effective school designs to use in transforming or replacing low graduation-rate high schools.
  • Target federal financing to high schools, districts, and states with the most pressing dropout problems.

“To successfully transform or replace low graduation-rate high schools, states and districts need access to the growing base of what works and where it works,” said Adria Steinberg, a vice president at Jobs for the Future and coauthor of the report. “It would be a waste of precious resources to quickly scale up interventions that were successful in one place without carefully analyzing the conditions that make success possible, and understanding which interventions work under what circumstances.”

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.