Improving High School Graduation Rates Will Require A Different Lens
In December, the U.S. Department of Education released data indicating that the nation's high school graduation rate is at 84.1%. While we should applaud the students, teachers, and administrators, we should also take a closer look at the data. "Only 76 percent of black students and 79 percent of Hispanic students graduated on time compared to 88 percent of white students and 91 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students" (The Washington Post, December 4, 2017).
If your son or daughter was part of the 16% of total students in the U.S. who did not graduate from high school, then you would have a different view on the data. In order for educators to improve graduation rates for all students, we must look through multiple lens.
Achievement Gap Lens
Gloria Ladson-Billings suggests that the nation does not have an achievement gap. Through her research she contends that the United States has an education debt. "What is it that we might owe to citizens who historically have been excluded from social benefits and opportunities" (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 8)? When teacher teams analyze achievement gaps, it is easy to make assumptions that "those kids" can't learn or "that group" is graduating more students than they did last year. Educators must look through the lens that addresses achievement gaps, rather than predicting that some students will continue to fall through the cracks before the twelfth grade. “It is no longer enough to just ensure that all students are prepared to walk through the entrance doors of high school or college; nor is it acceptable to track students into educational paths that limit their opportunities. In today’s global and entrepreneurial economy, every student must also be able to walk out of the building with a meaningful diploma, prepared for success in the twenty-first century.” (Alliance for Excellent Education, Civic Enterprises, and the Data Quality Campaign, 2011, p. 1).
The equity lens requires educators to provide the "Opportunity to Learn" (OTL) to all students. Public schools in the United States often focus on graduation rates, dropout data, achievement test results, teacher turnover, student retention data and other studies which focus on outputs. Opportunity to learn (OTL) studies shift the focus away from ends or outputs to the inputs of education or the strategies, programs, policies and resources which are intentionally designed to help all students reach state standards and district goals for promotion and graduation (Scherff & Piazza, 2009).
Providing all students with a fair opportunity to learn is perhaps the most pressing issue facing U.S. education (Moss, Pullin, Gee, Haertel, & Young, 2008). Educators should celebrate the number of students who graduate from high school, while seeking answers to Opportunity to Learn. It can be depressing for educators to see that over one million students did not graduate with their cohort, but the statistics can serve as a springboard for conversation regarding equity. "High schools that are designed to prepare large numbers of students for college success look dramatically different from those that prepare only a small proportion of their students for college success" (Conley, 2005).
High School Readiness Lens
It is critically important for educators at the middle school level to monitor high school readiness. Without sufficient preparation in elementary and middle school, students cannot succeed at the high school level in English, mathematics, and reading (Greene & Winters 2005; Westover & Hatton, 2011). A student who is high school ready is prepared to enter high school equipped to pass the coursework required to earn a high school diploma. To achieve the nation’s goal of graduating all of its high school students ready for college and career, “it will be essential for students to enter high school with at least close-to-grade-level skills and knowledge” (Balfanz, 2009, p. 6). According to Williams, Rosin, and Kirst (2011), “Middle grades educators are key to enabling more students to become high school-ready and later, college- and career-ready” (p. 4).
Traditionally, middle school principals monitor the number of students who are promoted from middle school to high school. The promotion rate is monitored, but having passing grades does not mean a student is high school ready. High school readiness is an important bridge to college and career readiness. If school administrators and teachers know the number of students who are entering high school ready for success, then efforts can be made to support the students who are not high school ready.
How does hunger interfere with student understanding? “Over 13 million kids in this country, going to school hungry is the norm. One in five children in the United States live in food insecure households, which means they lack consistent access to enough food” (The Washington Post, March 9, 2017). Students go home on Friday and wait until school breakfast or school lunch on Monday, before they eat their next healthy meal. Some schools in the United States pack a backpack with canned food and healthy snacks for students who need healthy meals over the weekend. It is difficult to understand how a student feels when the teacher asks, “How does democracy impact our lives?” The student is focused on hunger and it is difficult to focus on the unit’s essential question. What can your school do to support students who have a financial need or who live to make it back to school breakfast on Monday?
Kindergarten Readiness Lens
Ideally, all children would arrive at kindergarten on day one ready to learn. While all students can learn, readiness ranges from students who attended a quality preschool program to students with no formal schooling. Some parents teach their child how to read and count before age 4, while other families depend on the kindergarten teacher to provide these experiences to their child. “Persistent gaps in kindergarten readiness between children from low-income families and their higher-income peers — which have continued as ongoing achievement gaps in later years — appear to be narrowing, new research shows” (Hay, 2016).
Pre-K programs have improved over the past two decades and teachers are focused on preparing students for success in kindergarten. Since preschool is not mandatory and is not funded in all 50 states, kindergarten readiness will still be a difficult problem for educators. More conversations about kindergarten readiness will support teachers and families. Do families in your community have a clear picture of what it means for their child to enter school kindergarten ready?
Mental Health Lens
“Up to one in five kids living in the U.S. shows signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in a given year. So in a school classroom of 25 students, five of them may be struggling with the same issues many adults deal with: depression, anxiety, substance abuse” (NPR, 2016, Mental Health in Schools: A Hidden Crisis Affecting Millions of Students). Mental health impacts students across the United States. Focusing on high school credits, GPA, college readiness topics, and challenging courses will not help all students graduate. Some school districts employ social workers, counselors, nurses, and community partners. Other schools cannot afford additional staff to support students who need mental health support. One could argue that with these statistics, a school district cannot afford to continue operating with a ‘business as usual’ approach. In order to increase the high school graduation rate, leaders will need to identify funding and design a support system for students who need additional support in order to graduate prepared for success after high school.
“No longer an end point in the public education system, the American high school is now being asked to prepare all its students for the postsecondary schooling and training required for full economic and social participation in U.S. society” (Balfanz, 2009, p. 18). Which lens will your school staff need to look through in order to increase the high school graduation rate?