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President Obama has been talking up the newly released U.S. high school graduation rate of 83.2 percent, with the White House noting in an announcement that the rate has grown by about four percentage points since the 2010-2011 school year. That was the first year when all states used a consistent measure of high school completion.

Obama didn’t take direct credit for the rate rise but the announcement — and a speech Obama gave at a D.C. high school about his education record — detail programs Obama launched that appear to be an attempt to link his administration to the upward graduation trend.

Did those programs work? Maybe. Maybe not. For one thing, it’s hard to attribute a particular policy to the graduation rate. As education historian Larry Cuban wrote here,

Keep in mind that a single-factor explanation for annual upticks (or down-ticks) in national numbers is suspect. Schooling, like life, is complex. Many factors come into play in trying to explain changes in U.S. schooling. So picking factors that are associated strongly with one another and leaping to a cause-effect conclusion would be an error.

Other issues that can call into question the reported graduation rates include the fact that the data from some school districts is incomplete or fuzzy. Here’s an example: In 2014, the Los Angeles Unified School District reported a big rise in the graduation rate, 77 percent for 2013-14, which was said to be a full 12 percentage points better than the previous year. Really? As the Los Angeles Times noted:

[T]he good news comes with a substantial caveat. The rate is calculated based on students enrolled in comprehensive high schools, and it leaves out students who transfer to alternative programs — which frequently include those most at risk of dropping out.

The following post discusses another important issue regarding graduation rates: how students from low-income families are faring, and why. It was written by Emily Hanford, a senior education correspondent for APM Reports, the documentary and investigative reporting team of American Public Media, the largest station-based public radio organization in the United States. You can find her documentaries here.

 

By Emily Hanford

The good news about America’s high school graduation rate — it has hit a modern record of 83.2 percent — should come with a warning label: students from low-income families are still lagging far behind other kids. Grad rates are up across the board, but if you compare students from low-income families to students who are not low income, there is a gap of about 14 percentage points.[1]

Why are so many students from poor families still not making it through high school?

A lot of it has to do with the rise of high-poverty schools. A high-poverty school is one where more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price meals. The most recent data show that one in four public schools in America is a high-poverty school,  double what it was back in the 1990s.

Perhaps even more startling, nearly half of black and Hispanic students in the United States go to a high-poverty school. You read that right. Nearly half of all black and Hispanic students are in a school where the majority of their classmates are from low-income families. And what about white students? Only 8 percent of white students go to high-poverty schools.

And here’s the problem: Going to a school where nearly all of your classmates are poor puts you at a huge disadvantage educationally. Research shows the percentage of a student’s schoolmates who are poor is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even after accounting for a child’s own family income and socioeconomic status.

The United States once tried to close achievement gaps by de-segregating public schools, but the country has largely turned its back on de-segregation. Public schools in the United States are more racially segregated now than they were in the 1970s, and the percentage of schools where the vast majority of students are black or Hispanic and poor has nearly doubled in the past 15 years.

 

 Changes in the percentage of high-poverty schools comprised of mostly black or Hispanic students:


It’s a tall order for educators to figure out how to give students in these schools an equal shot at opportunity. The new graduation data suggest they are succeeding in some schools. But what exactly are they up against? Students who grow up in high-poverty environments are often faced with overwhelming challenges that kids living in more affluent circumstances never confront.

I spent the better part of a year interviewing students at two high-poverty schools and heard stories of students coming to school hungry, working to support their families, living alone, staying home because they can’t afford to do laundry. I even heard a story about a kid who hid in a classroom at night because there was nowhere for him to sleep.

A graduate of one of these schools, Carlos Cruz, explained it this way when I asked why living in poverty can make it hard to get through high school. “We got rent due. We got lights to pay. We got real life issues going on, than you’re AX plus B equals MC,” he said.

Another graduate, Camaree Walker, told me this: “It’s hard to find hope when there’s no hope sitting at the table. I think a lot of kids don’t graduate because they just give up. They think that, maybe I was meant for a bad life. Maybe I was meant to be a gang member. Maybe I was meant to not go to school or go to college.”

[You can listen to Walker, Cruz and other students talk about their school experiences in the audio documentary “What It Takes: Chasing Graduation at High-Poverty High Schools" from APM Reports. http://www.apmreports.org/story/2016/09/01/high-school-poverty-graduation]

Walker and Cruz both say they wouldn’t have graduated from high school if they hadn’t gone to schools that invest time and resources in helping students deal with the things going on in their lives outside of school. Their schools provide things such as washing machines and help finding housing, therapists and food. These systems of support need to be formalized and invested in at high-poverty high schools. If not, there is often nowhere for students to turn when their challenging lives become overwhelming and the immediate best option is sometimes to quit school.

For years, we have beat up on schools with low graduation rates. We labelled them — and their teachers, administrators and students — failures. While that’s been happening, the percentage of high-poverty schools has been growing. There is a lot that great staff and great teaching can do.

But there’s not much evidence that schools alone will be able to overcome the stubborn graduation gap between kids in poor communities and kids in higher income environments. It’s time to recognize that equality of opportunity requires us to look at what is going on in kids’ lives outside of school, and to make the necessary investments in poor communities. It may also be time to think about why American schools are so segregated, and to push for policies that would make it so that rich and poor are not living – and going to school – so far apart.

[1] This comparison data (low-income compared to non low-income) is so far not available for the 2014-15 data) so this is mixing the news of the new data with a reference to the 2013-14 data. It’s safe to assume the gap is about the same as it was last year, given that overall rate is up by about 1 percent, and rate among low-income kids is up just over 1 percent.