High schools get larger share of federal education assistance

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Education Department announced Tuesday that it has provided an unprecedented amount of aid to turn around struggling high schools, while an independent report found that the nation's high school graduation rate is on the rise.

The federal announcement and the report from America's Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded by former secretary of state Colin Powell, reflected a coordinated response to what some experts have called high school "dropout factories."

Through the 2009 economic stimulus law, the government has targeted $3.5 billion to improve persistently low-performing schools. On Tuesday, the department disclosed that 48 percent of the 730 schools that have set turnaround plans in motion through those grants are high schools.

That is a higher share, officials say, than high schools normally receive because federal education aid usually is tilted toward elementary and middle schools that qualify for the anti-poverty program known as Title I. On average, the high schools are receiving $1.5 million each to implement staff shake-ups, leadership changes or other major interventions.

"In the past, low-performing high schools have been almost totally ignored in most districts' school turnaround efforts," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.

One Washington area school that has benefited from the grants is T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.

The independent report found that the national high school graduation rate rose from 72 percent in 2001, the year Congress approved the No Child Left Behind law, to 75 percent in 2008.

The rate, derived from federal data, provides an estimate of the percentage of ninth-graders from a given class who earn a regular diploma. The graduation rate had been as high as 78 percent in 1970.

Progress was greatest, the report found, in Tennessee and New York, which both registered percentage-point gains in double digits. The 2008 graduation rate in Tennessee was about 75 percent, up 15 points, and in New York it was about 71 percent, up 10 points.

Rates increased less than a percentage point in Maryland, where the graduation rate in 2008 stood at about 80 percent, and in Virginia, where the 2008 rate was 77 percent.

The report found that many states had reduced the number of high schools known as "dropout factories," defined as those in which no more than 60 percent of students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year. There were an estimated 2,000 such schools in 2002 and about 1,750 in 2008.

The report estimated that there are 27 "dropout factories" in Maryland and 25 in Virginia. There was no data on the District.

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