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US High School Graduation Rate Hits All-Time High, Per Report


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to start today with some good news about our nation's schools. A new report shows that U.S. public high schools have reached an 80 percent graduation rate. That data comes from the National Center for Education Statistics.

We wanted to find out more, so we've called upon Emily Richmond. She is the public editor of the Education Writers Association, and she joins us from member station WABE in Atlanta, Georgia. Emily, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

EMILY RICHMOND: It's a pleasure to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've also called Daniel Gohl. He is the chief academic officer at Houston Independent School District. Texas is one of the states that ranked near the top. And he's with us from Houston, Texas. Mr. Gohl, thank you so much for joining us as well.

DANIEL GOHL: Hello, Michel. Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: So, Emily, let me start with you. How significant is an 80 percent graduation rate? Is this an all-time high?

RICHMOND: It is an all-time high for the United States, and it's an important milestone for that reason but also because it suggests the country is on track to hit an ambitious goal of a 2020 graduation rate of 90 percent.

MARTIN: Whose goal is that?

RICHMOND: Well, there's a coalition of organizations that have come together to address both the dropout rate and the nation's struggling graduation rate. And they're the ones who put out the report Monday based on the new federal figures. So you have the Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center, which is at Johns Hopkins University, America's Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education. So that's what the researchers are projecting. And it's something that those groups would hope we could hit.

MARTIN: More broadly, is it now generally something that the country as a whole - if you just think, you know, parents, public officials, do we kind of generally have a consensus that we want to get to 90 percent and that we can get to 90 percent?

RICHMOND: I think it's a realistic goal based on the numbers that we're seeing now. And that should give people a lot of hope. But we need to talk about who's not in that 80 percent. There's 718,000 students who dropped out of what would have been the class of 2012. That, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan said yesterday, is a group of teens and young adults that is larger than the total populations of Wyoming and Vermont.

And we know that high school diploma's the bear minimum for even marginal employment. So that means for students who fail to graduate, that achievement gap quickly becomes an opportunity gap that's going to persist long after their classmates have walked past them across that graduation stage. And it's a gap they're going to struggle with for the rest of their adult lives.

MARTIN: All right. Well, let's hold that thought, Emily Richmond, and let's hear more about the success part of it. And we'll still talk a little bit - we'll wait a couple of minutes to talk about what still needs to be done. Let's focus on, like, what's been accomplished so far.

So the aptly named Daniel Gohl, you work the Houston Independent School District. Texas was one of the top five states in high school graduation rates graduating 88 percent of students. What do you see as the most important factor in achieving those numbers?

GOHL: To me, the most important factor is laying out the expectation in every community, both within our urban centers as well as in our most remote and distant rural areas, that we expect the public commitment to public school dollars being spent to result in student achievement. And that is best identified not through test scores but by a high school diploma.

It is a certificate that it is not just the level of what you know but your ability to attend on time, your ability to complete expected tasks. As we enter an era when all of our students will have been born in the 21st century, we need to ensure that the public dollars are resulting in a public return in the future, which is why we have public schools.

MARTIN: You have to note that part of the improvement here came from a significant jump in graduation rates amongst students of color. John Bridgeland is one of the authors of the report. He talked about this on the "PBS NewsHour" on Monday. Let's play a short clip from that conversation.


JOHN BRIDGELAND: The most significant gains in graduation rates have actually been among Hispanic students and African-Americans since 2006. And these student, half of African-Americans and 40 percent of Hispanics, were trapped in these dropout-factory schools where it was literally a 50-50 proposition whether you graduated or not.

MARTIN: So, Emily Richmond, back to your point about who is being left out. And where were these dropout-factory schools that Mr. Bridgeland speaks of, and what happened to the students after these schools closed?

RICHMOND: Well, a lot of them were in high concentrations of urban areas. And it's important to stay that they're still there. We know from this report that a number of those schools has declined by about 33 percent in the past decade. And we believe those students have been transferred to more successful campuses or alternative programs.

But over that same period, you have to understand, it's not just about shutting down an underperforming school. It's making sure that that student lands somewhere that they're going to be successful. So the questions we have to ask is what is working? Is it that they've been transferred to more successful schools? Are they getting into better programs? Or in some cases, a question has been raised, I think fairly, is have states changed their graduation requirements in some way that made it a little bit easier, has lowered the bar so that more students are graduating?

MARTIN: So, Daniel Gohl, maybe you can help us with that question.

And if you're just joining us, we're talking about high school graduation rates, which have reached a historic high. We're speaking with Emily Richmond of the Education Writers Association - that's who was speaking just now - and Daniel Gohl of the Houston Independent School District. Texas is ranking among the states with the highest graduation rates.

So, Daniel Gohl, can you help us with that? What are the - some of the success factors? And are we in part - you know, people always ask this question when numbers look both good and bad depending on their point of view. Are we changing what we're measuring to get these numbers?

GOHL: Well, we constantly are changing what we're measuring. But the important thing is that we have now entered the second stage of our standards movement. And while graduation used to just be about the accumulation of credits, right - you have four years of English and enough electives in math, all of that put together. Many states have now instituted some form of testing, whether that's a graduation test of what you need for literacy at the high school level or subject-based exams and of course exams for an Algebra I or a geometry. Many states have moved to that. And that actually represents a raising of the bar from previous generations.

What has helped is that we are now able to be clear with students as to what level of achievement they need to make, we can measure where they have gaps, and we can work with them. Now, Houston - as in many cities in Texas - has done things to extend the ways in which we can get students to that bar - that they have night school if they need to work during the day, that they have multiple options to choose from, not just the dropout factory which may be in their ZIP Code - so by introducing a number of ways that students can find the right fit for a program, but at the same time hold the standard more able to be flexible with the how, but make sure that the degree is meaningful, because the high school diploma must equate with college readiness, workplace readiness, without remediation.

MARTIN: We talked about the ethnic factor here in the quote that we heard earlier from John Bridgeland about the large numbers of African-American and Latino students who were trapped in these dropout factories in Houston. You know, more than 60 percent of the students are Hispanic, and nearly 25 percent of the students are African-American.

So were there specific - obviously these are - there's a lot of diversity within these groups. I mean, I think, you know, that has to be said. But did you find that there was specific things that - techniques that you felt that were particularly successful, and were any of them driven by particular circumstances that you felt were particularly successful with students who had not been previously succeeding?

GOHL: So in 2007, our graduation rate was 56 percent here in Houston. And in 2013, we're up well over 80 percent, and we're trying to beat the state and lead the nation to get to that 100 percent. But here are the things that we've tried and have proven very successful in moving that bar - that is, making sure more of our students are successful.

Every student has a credit recovery lab because if you're missing an English II credit and you've been in high school for five years, you'll never walk stage. But you're not going to sit with 14-year-olds when you're a 19-year-old. So allowing students to master those skills in their own time in their own way.

We've opened seven night high schools throughout the city where our people were able to go. Every campus has a dropout prevention, which equates to a graduation promotion committee, to track every student who is at risk. And there are many different metrics and methodologies to deal with risk. What's important is that every campus defines it, measures it and intervenes. Those are three top interventions that we've been able to introduce.

MARTIN: So, Emily, let's loop back to where you were trying to take us at the beginning, which is the kids who are being left out. If 80 percent of students are graduating, that means that 20 percent are not. So tell us a little bit more about the students who are still being left behind.

RICHMOND: Well, we know for a fact that there's a lot of variance once you start getting into what that 80 percent means. And when you start to peel down by student subgroup, there's still significant and troubling disparities in achievement. You talked about some of the ethnic disparities, but there are also big gaps by socioeconomic status and other subgroups of students who typically struggle academically. For example, nationally, the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students was 70 percent, and I counted 14 states where at least a third of those students failed to earn a diploma. For English language learners, it's 59 percent graduation rate, and in nine states, at least half of those students fail to graduate.

MARTIN: So, Daniel Gohl, will you give us a final thought here about other things that you feel are scalable, things that you're doing in Houston and Texas in general and Houston in particular that you think are scalable that you would want - recommend to other states, if you feel comfortable doing that?

GOHL: To my fellow professionals, I'll ask them to continue to examine how they're making sure that students are able to make up previous mistakes, that we do not permanent the mistakes of youth that prevent them from graduating. That's the dropout recovery. That's the credit recovery. That's making sure that programs are available in their neighborhoods to be able to do it.

The other thing is that high school cannot be a monolithic definition, that we need to ensure that there are programmatic variations that add an effective appeal to why you want to graduate from high school and not just some future promise of return. Make it interesting. They will come, they will complete, and they will move to success.

MARTIN: Do you feel proud about this, Mr. Gohl? I mean, you're being very - I appreciate that you're being very kind of professional about it. But, I mean, is there a part...

GOHL: We are tremendously proud.

MARTIN: ...Of you that feels a little bit ready for a chest bump here?

GOHL: We are tremendously proud. And having 4 out of every 5 students who enter our district successfully complete is a great move forward.

MARTIN: Did you think you would see this in your professional life?

GOHL: It's why we all go into it. So, yes, I hoped we would. It's not as soon as I would've hoped, but it's sooner than I feared. And we got to get to 1 out of 10, and then close it to 1 out of 20 and just keep moving that needle.

MARTIN: All right. Daniel Gohl is chief academic officer at Houston Independent School District. Emily Richmond is the public editor of the Education Writers Association. Thank you both so much for being with us today.

GOHL: Thank you.

RICHMOND: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.