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High School Graduation Rates A National Shame

Educational achievement is a long range predictor of a nations economic health and well being.  In advanced economies, a great deal depends on scientific and technical achievements which begin with educational excellence.

A recent report from the World Economic Forum published a study on global business competitiveness that ranks 144 nations according to indicators in 12 categories.  While the United State ranked 7th in the world over all, our ranking in primary and secondary education measures were alarming.  The united states ranked 58th on primary school enrollments and 38th on the quality of our primary education. We ranked 47th in secondary school enrollment and 47th on the quality of math and science education.  (See report summary here )
Now the U.S. Department of Education has released data detailing state four-year high school graduation rates in 2010-11 – the first year for which all states used a common, rigorous measure. The report states:
“The varying methods formerly used by states to report graduation rates made comparisons between states unreliable, while the new, common metric can be used by states, districts and schools to promote greater accountability and to develop strategies that will reduce dropout rates and increase graduation rates in schools nationwide.
The new, uniform rate calculation is not comparable in absolute terms to previously reported rates. Therefore, while 26 states reported lower graduation rates and 24 states reported unchanged or increased rates under the new metric, these changes should not be viewed as measures of progress but rather as a more accurate snapshot. “
See States Four Year Graduation Rates here: http://www2.ed.gov/documents/press-releases/state-2010-11-graduation-rate-data.pdf  In reading the summary below please keep in mind that no data was available from Idaho, Kentucky, Oklahoma or Puerto Rico and some other states had data missing.

Summary of Finding

The highest graduation rate achieved by any state is in Iowa, which as an 88% high school graduation rate.  Wisconsinand Vermont were right behind Iowa with an 87% graduation rate.  The lowest high school graduation rate is just 59% in the District of Colombia.  Among the sovereign states the lowest graduation rates  were in Nevada (62%), New Mexico (63%), Georgia (67%), Alaska and Oregon  (both at 68%).  All tolled, 13 states have high school graduation rate at or below 75%.
When it comes to race and ethnicity, the graduation rates for Latino children in Maine and Hawaii are slightly better then for White students.  Beyond these two examples, in every other state the rates are lower for both Black and Latino students, and significantly so in some states.  In Minnesota and Nevada Black student have a graduation rate below 50%.  The disparity in Minnesota is stark.  White students in Minnesota graduate at a rate of 84% while the Latino graduation rate is 51% and only 49% of Black students graduate.  These numbers and other dramatic disparities among the states are a national disgrace.
Even more startling is the low graduation rates and huge rate disparity for children with disabilities.  Graduation rates for these children range from a high of  77% in Texas, 75% in Arkansas and 73% in both Kansas and New Jersey to a low of 23% in Mississippi and Nevada.  Only 33 states have graduation rates above 50% among children with disabilities.  Children with disabilities are not more severely handicapped in places like Louisiana (29%) thanPennsylvania (71%).

Children with limited English proficiency also graduate at lower rates in most states, but especially in Nevada (29%) and Arizona (25%).  Students with limited English proficiency actually have a better graduation rate in West Virginia (79%) than do White children for whom English is their primary language (77%).  In states as diverse as Arkansas and Maine limited English proficiency is hardly a barrier at all.  Nineteen states have high school graduation rates of less than 50% for children for whom English is not their primary language.

I would appear that childhood disabilities and limited English proficiency are not  that closely correlated with economic disadvantage.  There are no states in which the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged children falls below 50%.  In Arizona, for example, economically disadvantaged students have a 73% graduation rate and students with disabilities have a 67% rate of graduation while, as mentioned, students for whom need help learning English have a very low graduation rate (25%).  In the case of Mississippi economically disadvantaged students graduate at a rate of 69% while only 23% of disabled children graduate high school.
So what’s going on here?  From the broad strokes of this report it would seem that poor educational outcomes are less a result of funding or the demographics of being economically poor and more a matter of intentional neglect.  I hope I am being too harsh in my judgment.  No matter how you look at this data, what should be clear to everyone is that the United States is heading for national decline if we remain unable to turn around these educational outcomes.

How Public Schools Came to Be and the Fight to Dismantle Them

Publicly funded local schools are a universally accepted social norm.  Abandoning them would be almost unthinkable.  When we stop to consider what we value in our  communities, local public schools are almost always a top consideration and a source of civic pride.

This isn’t just true in the United States.  Publicly funded education has become a global norm in all advanced societies for nearly century.  But a hundred years isn’t very long in the sweeping arch of history, is it?  Public schooling has fundamentally altered American society, yet few of us can recount how this radical change came about.  How did public schools come to be?

The fight to establish public schools is almost lost history.  There is very little content or comment about it on the Web or in our public media.  What we do hear lately are a great many lively debates about burdensome public school taxes, failing schools, voucher programs, charter schools, and making public funds more available for private schools and colleges.  Lost to our comprehension in these debates is how these arguments follow the exact fault lines in what was an incredibly contentious battle, waged over the course of a generation, to establish public schooling. The political struggle for public education has been compared as second only to the fight for the abolition of slavery in its intensity and divisiveness, but who remembers any of that today?

The battle to undo public education is already underway.  If we fail to grasp the fact it is because we have no historical context to recognize the attacks for what they are.  If we hope to retain and strengthen our system of public education in America, we need to place the current arguments against it in historical context.  We need to reclaim our history.

To this purpose I recommend a book copyrighted in 1919 by Ellwood P. Chubberly entitled, “Public Education in the United States, A Study and Interpretation of American Educational History.”  It is a text book, long out of print, but the entire book can be downloaded or read on line.  Much of the book is obviously dated, but the early chapters on the history of public education provide the valuable context we need to understand the political arguments today.

Of particular interest to our purpose here is Chapter V., “TheThe Battle for Free State Schools”, beginning on page 118.  Read this chapter first for some quick insights.  Below is the full URL addresses and links to the book and its Table of Contents.


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Table of Content