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If the nation is to truly meet the goal of every child a graduate, we must hold schools responsible for graduating every student with a regular diploma, particularly poor and minority students. Unfortunately, current education accountability systems virtually ignore high school graduation rates.
Years of data have consistently demonstrated the persistent graduation gap between America's students of color and their peers. The most recent estimate shows that high school graduation rates for African American, Latino, and American Indian students hover only slightly higher than 50 percent; more than 20 percentage points lower than that of their white peers.
American youth need strong reading and writing skills to succeed in school, work, and in life. Most students are able to "decode" or sound out words on a page, but far too many then fail to master critical reading and writing skills that include the ability to comprehend the meaning of what they read, understand the use of increasingly complex vocabulary, or to write for various purposes. Yet these are skills they desperately need if they are to succeed in college or work after high school.
Alignment to Twenty-First-Century Demands
The best way to help American students meet the challenges of the twenty-first century is to ensure that they leave high school with the skills and knowledge necessary for college, work, and citizenship. Unfortunately, the American education system is not designed around a common understanding of what those skills are and what is included in that knowledge base. However, there is growing consensus among colleges and employers that in an increasingly global, high-tech world, the knowledge and skills needed for success in the workplace are comparable to those needed for success in college. Unfortunately, there is also a growing recognition that America's students are not graduating with these skills. Every available indicator—state, national, and international assessments in math and reading; graduation rates; college-going rates; college remediation rates; and employer surveys-demonstrates America's youth (especially poor and minority students) are unprepared for the twenty-first century.
College and Career Readiness
From the highest levels of leadership—the president and the U.S. secretary of education—there is a call to action to address the high school crisis, focus on the lowest-performing schools, and graduate students college and career ready. The state-led movement to develop common standards and assessments offers the nation an opportunity to trade incremental changes for collaborative efforts with the power to truly transform American education. It is time to harness this progress and momentum, and convert commitment and proposals into a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) strategically designed to address the high school crisis and move the nation toward the goal of all students graduating from high school ready for college and careers.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is a state-led effort to establish a single set of clear educational standards for K–12 English language arts and mathematics that states can share and voluntarily adopt. The standards have been informed by the best available evidence and the highest standards across the country and around the world. They are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to go to college or enter the workforce and that parents, teachers, and students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. The standards are benchmarked to international standards to guarantee that the nation’s students are competitive in the emerging global marketplace. The initiative is led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices who have worked with teams of experts from all around the country and globe, and with forty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and two territories who signed onto the initiative. The common core state standards developed through the initiative have come to be more generally referred to as "common standards" and are considered "fewer, clearer, and higher" than most existing state standards.
Digital Learning, Data, and Technology
Currently, K–12 education in the United States is dealing with three major crises, each of which on its own is capable of wreaking havoc on schools and communities around the nation, but together are an all-out perfect storm. Simultaneously, the U.S. education system is facing a growing workforce whose mounting needs for education and training will not be met by the nation’s current public education system; declining state fiscal revenues; and mounting teacher shortages, further crippling low-performing secondary schools. The time for merely rethinking and upgrading the role of technology in education has passed; policy decisions today must embrace a dramatic transformation of teaching and learning. Technology can no longer be thought of simply as an “add-on” tool in education, but rather an integral part of the total educational environment.
Nationally, more than seven thousand students become dropouts every school day. That adds up to almost 1.3 million students annually who will not graduate from high school with their peers as scheduled. In addition to the moral imperative to provide every student with an equal opportunity to pursue the American dream, there is also an economic argument for helping more students graduate from high school.
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Currently Known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB)
The principles of NCLB have helped to focus the nation’s attention on the unacceptable achievement gap and the imperative of improving outcomes for all students, especially the most disadvantaged. But the needs of high schools are barely addressed in NCLB, so federal policy does little to improve high school students’ achievement and little federal funding reaches high schools. Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as NCLB, should include an appropriate and adequate federal role in supporting middle and high school reform across the country.
Graduation and Dropout Rates
Graduation is a fundamental indicator of whether or not the nation's public school system is doing what it is intended to do: enroll, engage, and educate youth to be productive members of society. Every year, approximately 1.3 million students—that's over 7,000 every school day—do not graduate from high school on time. Nationwide, only 69 percent of students earn their high school diplomas. Among minority students, only 56 percent of Hispanic, 54 percent of African American, and 51 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students in the U.S. graduate with a regular diploma, compared to 77 percent of white students and 81 percent of Asian Americans.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB)
The principles of NCLB have helped to focus the nation’s attention on the unacceptable achievement gap and the imperative of improving outcomes for all students, especially the most disadvantaged. But the needs of high schools are barely addressed in NCLB, so federal policy does little to improve high school students’ achievement and little federal funding reaches high schools. Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as NCLB, should include an appropriate and adequate federal role in supporting middle and high school reform across the country.
There are real challenges facing rural high schools and inherent assets that rural schools bring to the national education reform debate. Current federal education policies and research tend to favor urban and suburban high schools with the largest student populations and pay too little attention to the unique needs and circumstances of rural high schools. As a result, high schools-and high school students-in too many rural communities are in trouble.
Teachers and Leaders
There is growing consensus that the single most important factor in determining a student's academic performance is the quality of his or her teacher. Even low-performing students facing barriers to learning can achieve at high standards if they are taught by effective professional teachers. Yet, every school day, nearly a thousand teachers leave the field of teaching. Why is teacher turnover so high? Teachers cite a lack of support and poor working conditions among the primary factors.
State and Local Information
In an effort to provide more information about how high school students fare in a particular state, the Alliance for Excellent Education has created state reference state-by-state profiles that provide statistical snapshots of high schools and students, including data on graduation rates, college readiness, academic achievement, and the economic impacts that high school dropouts have on each state. The Alliance also maintains a Promoting Power database that provides information on the majority of the nation’s high schools. Promoting power is a good indicator of high schools’ graduation rates. If your local high school has a promoting power of less than 60 percent, it is very likely that it will have an unacceptably low graduation rate by state and national standards.