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MUST BE IN THE FRONT ROW!: High Schools, Graduation Rates Receive New Attention from Policy Community and World of Politics

"In the knowledge-based economy of the future, all good jobs will require education, skill and training that goes beyond high school,"

In a popular 1980s commercial, Bob Uecker remarked to his colleagues that his seats “must be in the front row,” as he was ousted from the box seats to the bleachers. In 2003, however, the former career backup catcher turned radio announcer finally got a little respect, when he was inducted into the broadcasters’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Over the last few months, high schools and graduation rates-far too long the “backup catchers” of the education world-have seen a sudden resurgence in the world of politics and policy. In the political world, both George W. Bush and John Kerry have put forth extensive proposals to increase the number of American high school graduates as part of their presidential campaigns.

Earlier this month, President Bush introduced several new initiatives to help prepare students for high school and beyond, including an additional $100 million for his Striving Readers initiative, bringing total funding for the program to $200 million.1 Bush also called for a new $200 million fund for states to encourage schools to develop performance plans based on eighth-grade data for entering high school students. The proposal would include periodic classroom-based assessment of individual students to determine student progress and possible suggestions for remedial work.

As part of his plan to increase the number of high school graduates by one million over the next five years, Senator Kerry would provide an additional $150 million over the FY 2004 ($174 million) funding level to build smaller schools, break up large troubled high schools into component parts, and make schools places where students feel comfortable. He also supports federal money for tutors and teacher training to improve literacy for middle and high school students who lack basic skills and proposes to increase funding for afterschool programs to $2.5 billion by 2007.

The focus on high school and graduation rates is not limited to the national level; many states have implemented programs that place reading coaches in middle and high schools to help students who read below grade level, and have created smaller schools in an effort to increase graduation rates. In mid-July, Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner, the new chairman of the National Governors Association (NGA), announced a new focus over the next year on ideas for improving high schools, with a particular emphasis on the senior year. Under Warner’s initiative,Redesigning the American High School, NGA intends to raise national awareness on the need for improving America’s high schools and the consequences of inaction.

“In the knowledge-based economy of the future, all good jobs will require education, skill and training that goes beyond high school,” Warner said. “Whether our young adults are going on to college or beginning careers, they have to leave high school with a foundation for success. Too often, they are not getting that solid foundation. High school students, particularly seniors, increasingly report they have checked out of school long before the last bell rings.”

The enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), with its accompanying requirement that graduation rates be part of schools’ Adequate Yearly Progress reporting, has led to greater pressure to assure that those rates are properly measured. A number of researchers in institutions across the country are looking more closely at traditional measures and presenting alternative methods that offer a much higher degree of reliability.

In addition, as they are currently reported by many states, graduation rates tend to mask problems and misrepresent the true situation in schools and districts. In an Education Week commentary, Christopher B. Swanson, research associate at the Urban Institute, noted that states can “select their own approaches to computing graduation rates, even though different calculation methods can produce markedly different results.” Others point out that even when the federal government does calculate graduation rates (as the U.S. Census Bureau and National Center for Education Statistics do), their findings often overstate the percentage of students who graduate. Some education researchers have developed new calculation methods that provide a more realistic picture of the number of students who receive a high school diploma. Tragically, the numbers are much lower than we originally thought.

This issue of Straight A’s will focus on these issues and others that surround the graduation rate debate. In doing so, the Alliance hopes to draw further attention to the silent crisis in the education world: Every school day in America, approximately three thousand middle and high school students drop out of school.

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For additional analysis and a side-by-side comparison of proposals from the two major presidential candidates as they relate to secondary school education, read The Presidential Candidates: Proposals to Increase High School Graduation Rates. The Alliance for Excellent Education will continually update this brief to reflect new proposals by the candidates as they are announced. The document is available at


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.