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Education Opinion

What Is Responsible for the Higher Graduation Rates?

By Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers — February 22, 2015 4 min read

The U.S. Department of Education announced that U.S. High School Graduation Rate Hit New Record High. That is a very good thing. Then we look a bit more deeply. In the report, U.S. Secretary of Education Aren Duncan was quoted as saying:

“We can take pride as a nation in knowing that we’re seeing promising gains, including for students of color. This is a vital step toward readiness for success in college and careers for every student in this country, and these improvements are thanks to the hard work of teachers, principals, students and families.”

The value of data lies in our ability to make sense of it. If one looks into the data, which holds 3 years of information, on an individual case, there is little that is remarkable. Some went up. Some went down. Some stayed the same. Percentages went up 2 or 3 points or stayed the same. And some went down. The problem is statistics are being used as evidence, and most of us are not qualified statisticians. Are the three years enough to establish an improvement trend? Is the conclusion that overall the United States is increasing graduation rates? In these three years were there other factors that changed the percentages by 1 or 2 points? Or, is improvement in some states pulling the average up?

A curious part of Secretary Duncan’s press release was buried at the end of the second paragraph (copied above) where he noted the hard work of teachers, principals, students and families. Where is the evidence from which he based this statement? Does that mean for states that are recorded as having stayed the same, or declined a point or two, that the teachers in that state did not work hard? Or that the principals, students, and families in those states were not as hard working as in other states? We accept his compliment but wonder about the premise on which it is based.

Note The Causes
Districts situated in communities that are poor do less well than districts situated in districts that are not. Districts in communities of affluence do the best. Does that mean those teachers, leaders, parents, and students work harder than those in poor communities?

Instead of applauding the highest graduation rate (not by much) inferring that the direction of the work he and his department have done is responsible, how about addressing some reality? Money does not solve all problems but it does solve some. Schools serving poor communities need greater resources than those in affluent ones. Rural schools may need different support than urban ones. Systems should not be treated the same. And graduation rates should be the goal while the route to graduation is supported with improvement in the environments in which these students are learning. For some it requires more funding. For others it requires re-visiting curriculum and assessment. For yet others it means learning new methods. The list is endless.

Test scores and graduation rates are best celebrated as valid markers of improvement if we know how we got there. Is it truly possible that anyone thinks legislation has changed the way parents are raising their children? Is it possible that the policies of the U.S. Department of Education made students work harder? Was that it? Students didn’t work hard enough? No. Standards changed, teaching changed, technology changed, tests and other measures of teaching and learning changed. Which efforts made the difference? Which efforts are the ones that we need to invest in and which are distractions? A raised graduation rate (albeit a very slightly raised one) does not give us answers. It is a measure of an outcome.

Use Data Wisely
We may not be able to change that these announcements of data conclusions are published on a national or even state level. On a local level though, there is opportunity to do a better job of translating and using data. With goals like rising graduation rates, students reaching higher grades on courses and standardized tests, keeping the “how” on the list of things to be observed and measured will set schools apart from the broad sweeping statements like “High School Graduation Rates Hit New High thanks to the hard work of teachers, principals, students and families.”

Know What To Measure and Communicate Progress
Want students to achieve more? Decide how to get there. It isn’t about trying harder. What factor(s) in each community need attention in order to make that happen?


  • Scheduling?
  • Supplies?
  • Professional development?
  • Staffing?
  • After school tutoring opportunities?
  • Assessments?
  • Observation/Evaluation/Coaching?
  • Discipline practices?
  • Safety?
  • Attendance?

If the facets that contribute to the improvement of student achievement are not noted, evaluated, and communicated, then no one will know the reason why the goal met. And certainly no one will know how to continue the improvement process. On a local level we have the opportunity to do it better; to set the goals and determine the route. On a local level we have the opportunity to know what is needed in order to hit the target, set the steps, watch, measure and communicate the progress toward the goal. On a local level, we can speak with authority and not sound like Secretary Duncan when he says, "...these improvements are thanks to the hard work of teachers, principals, students and families” because there is no way he can know that. On a local level there is opportunity for integrity; identify the route by developing it with diverse groups, watch the journey, measure progress and communicate it along the way. Outcomes are not the result of one thing or another. Schools are dynamic systems and it is the result of the interaction of different aspects of the organization that contribute to goal attainment. Let the meeting of goals for improved student achievement be celebrated by the knowing of how you got there.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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