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A Civic Marshall Plan

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Millions of Americans have now seen Waiting for "Superman", the documentary showing that an excellent education for low-income children is often a matter of chance. Viewers watch with angst as numbers are pulled from jars, identifying the few children who will have a chance at a quality education to break the bonds of poverty. Some make it; most don't.

The film is powerful -- showing the persistence of parents, the value of effective teachers, the centrality of high expectations, the dangers of low-performing schools, and the growing skills gap that is threatening American competitiveness.

What the film does not provide are scalable solutions in our public schools where the vast majority of children are found.

Hope is on the way. After a decade of gloomy reports on the achievement gap, high school dropout epidemic, and more recently the college completion gap, progress is finally being made in some of the most unexpected places.

This week, we are releasing a report showing that over the last decade high school graduation rates have increased significantly across a majority of states and the number of high school "dropout factories" -- those graduating 60 percent or less of their students -- has declined by 373 schools, nearly a 20 percent improvement.

Initially, progress was made most across 9 southern states, where the dropout problem has been most severe, but our data in the last year shows that gains also occurred in the West, Midwest and in urban and rural areas.

Urban school districts thought to be unfixable have been transformed with results. In New York City, the nation's largest public school system, the city's progress drove a 10-percentage-point gain across New York State from 2002 to 2008. Strong leadership, data driven innovations in school design, a chancellor shielded from politics by mayoral control, new leaders and new teachers with supports for both, and an increased focus on excellence and accountability contributed to the city's success.

Two cities in Ohio, Cincinnati and Canton, each raised their high school graduation rates by large double digits over the last decade. Success resulted from good data, a commitment to re-organizing schools, creating more personal learning environments, mobilizing wrap-around supports for the students most in need, and raising standards to ensure students are prepared for college.

Although 580,000 fewer students attend high school dropout factories, more than two million students still do. Nationally, we must increase efforts fivefold to meet the national goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020.

A "Civic Marshall Plan" among organizations representing administrators, teachers, parents, policy makers and community leaders is underway. Targeting the dropout factory high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools, the plan sets concrete benchmarks for action around on-track reading, chronic absenteeism, early warning systems, school and community supports, and school transformation. The goal is both to graduate more students from high school and ensure they are college and career ready. Our case studies show that those schools that are raising standards and matching them with supports to students and teachers are having the most success.

Recent trends show accelerated progress is possible. For the first time, graduation rates will be measured consistently across the nation, and states and school districts will be accountable for meeting graduation targets; common standards preparing students for college and career are being adopted across states; the federal government is making historic investments in school transformation; early warning systems that predict the students likely to drop out are coming online; national non-profits are surrounding students and schools with critical supports; and national service is mobilizing full-time boots on the ground to provide thousands of struggling students the academic and emotional supports they need to get back on track. Congress needs to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and include provisions that will help stem the dropout tide.

Every student should have a chance at the American dream and the education required to achieve it. We now know who the potential dropouts are, where they attend school, and what causes them to drop out. With a focused response, we can ensure they become the supermen and women who fly into the future and fulfill their dreams.

John M. Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, and Robert Balfanz, Co-Director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, are co-authors of Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, 2010-2011 Annual Update released with the America's Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education this week in Washington, DC.