According to Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic 2014 (112 pages, PDF), a report published in April by America's Promise Alliance and its partners, the four-year high school graduation rate in the United States reached 80 percent for the first time ever in 2012. But while the overall rate is on track to reach the 90 percent goal set by the alliance's Building a GradNation Campaign, the report notes the troubling persistence of achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color. In an effort to help address those gaps, America's Promise just released Don't Call Them Dropouts: Understanding the Experiences of Young Americans Who Leave High School Before Graduation (72 pages, PDF), which looks at the multiple factors that result in students in high-poverty communities leaving high school before they graduate.
PND spoke with John Gomperts, president and CEO of America's Promise Alliance, about the positive trendlines in graduation rates, the implications of the reports' findings, and what philanthropy can do to address the achievement gaps that remain. Before joining America’s Promise in 2012, Gomperts headed AmeriCorps, Civic Ventures, and Experience Corps.
Philanthropy News Digest: Building a Grad Nation notes that one of the factors in the steady rise in the U.S. high school graduation rate over the last decade is the significant improvement in African-American and Latino graduation rates. To what do you attribute those gains?
John Gomperts: We as a nation have seen an almost 10 percentage-point increase in high school graduation rates over about a decade, which is notable, because that means that an additional four hundred thousand young people are graduating every year than were graduating a decade ago. That's four hundred thousand young people who are on track to becoming successful adults, which is a huge thing for those young people, their families, their communities, and the nation. And, yes, we have seen impressive gains among African-American and Latino students. Those two groups had a long distance to travel, and that was one of the huge red flags for all of us who are concerned about young people and opportunity. But while graduation rates for African Americans and Latinos have improved over the last decade, they still graduate at lower rates and there is more work to do.
To what do I attribute these gains? A couple of things. The first is a much greater awareness of the challenge. For a long time, people just assumed that everybody graduated from high school, or that it didn't matter. One of the big things that America's Promise and its partners set out to do was to help people understand that lots of kids are not graduating from high school, as well as the consequences of not graduating for those kids, their families, their communities, and the country.
Second, greater awareness of the problem led to much greater accountability at the school level, community level, family level, and national level, so that all of a sudden, with significant help from the federal government and from folks on the outside, people are now tracking graduation rates and holding institutions and individuals accountable for the outcomes.
Third, there is no question that targeted school reform has helped drive improvements in graduation rates. Those efforts come in a variety of forms: better teachers, better curriculum, longer school days, charter schools, teacher evaluations, and so on. In addition, a whole host of reforms have been targeted to the lowest-performing schools, and those have made a difference.
Fourth, we've learned a lot more about, and invested more heavily in, evidence-based interventions in schools and in communities. We've gotten smarter about what the real barriers are that prevent kids from staying and succeeding in school. Some of those things have to do with school, some of those things have to do with life, and I think many nonprofits have done a great job of working with local school districts and others to provide the kind of support that young people who are growing up in challenging circumstances need in order to flourish and thrive.