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IN THIS CORNER…: Greene and Mishel Tangle in a Debate About Graduation Rate Calculations

“The very low graduation rates that are being cited are out of sync with what the most reliable data sources tell us,” said Mishel.

In Leaving Boys Behind: Public High School Graduation Rates, JayGreene and co-author Marcus Winters not only present updated and expanded information about graduation rates, but they also devote a portion of the report to defending their research against attacks by Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), and economist Joydeep Roy. In an EPI report, Rethinking High School Graduation Rates and Trends, Mishel and Roy question the accuracy of graduation rate calculations such as Greene’s that are based on enrollment data.

“The very low graduation rates that are being cited are out of sync with what the most reliable data sources tell us,” said Mishel. “We hope this report will clear the fog, create a better understanding of the true challenges we face and the progress we’ve made, and help lead the way to better targeted solutions for continuing to close the remaining gaps. Understanding where we are and how far we’ve come can help identify what has been working in American public education.”

On April 27, the Center for Education Policy brought Greene and Mishel together to debate their respective methodologies, which produce graduation rates that differ by about 500,000 students.

Mishel, a labor-market economist, first came to the graduation rate debate when he observed that the ratio of high school graduates’ wages to dropouts’ wages has not changed for 30 years. Using data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, Mishel concluded that the share of high school graduates in the workforce has grown while the share of dropouts has fallen. In fact, Mishel pegged the national high school graduation rate for white students at 95% versus 78% reported by Greene. Mishel said that Greene had exaggerated the African-American dropout rate by nearly 25%. According to Mishel’s estimates, 73% of African Americans receive regular high school diplomas, versus the 55% that Greene calculates.

Mishel’s main argument against Greene and Winters’ work is that it relies on enrollment and diploma counts from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data (CCD). In their report, Greene and Winters offer the following rebuttal: “It should not be difficult for states to track enrollment and diplomas. Enrollment counts are based on schools taking attendance, which … are the basis for school funding by state and federal governments. … Similarly, diploma counts are likely to be accurate because it is easy for schools to count diplomas and it is easy to verify the numbers. At the very least, schools have to know how many diplomas should be printed and distributed.”

At the debate, Greene argued that while the CPS is a reputable survey for certain purposes, it, like any other survey, suffers from certain statistical biases, one of which is its failure to survey prisoners and marginalized and disadvantaged people not attached to households—groups that are likely to be dropouts.

During the question-and-answer portion of the debate, a Census official in the audience (speaking in a personal capacity) noted that because Mishel and Greene are calculating fundamentally different things they are bound to disagree. He noted that Mishel’s analysis was estimating the educational attainment of the population versus Greene’s assessment of the success of public schools in graduating students with a regular diploma in 4 years.

The debate over methodology is likely to continue. However, there is one thing that most researchers who have weighed in on the controversy do agree on: regardless of the methods used to count them, far too many young people are dropping out of high school, and they and the country are the poorer for it.

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, said in response to the controversy, “I appreciate the attention that the Mishel-Greene debate has generated around high school graduation rates, but I worry that we are losing focus on the real issue. Whatever the calculation, far too many students fail to graduate high school with the skills needed for postsecondary education or the modern workforce. Without that discussion, this debate is like going to the Saturday night professional wrestling matches. The graduation rate debate might make for an interesting first match, but it is not the main event, which is the quality of the education behind the high school diploma.”

Rethinking High School Graduation Rates and Trends is available at

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