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Closing the High School Graduation Gap

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This week, good news emerges around the high school dropout epidemic and frightening education gaps that threaten America's opportunity society. A high school diploma is just a stepping stone on the way to college and productive work -- a foundation of progress from which we must continue to build.

For decades, more than 1 million students failed to graduate with their class every year. Many left school because they did not see a connection between classroom learning and their career dreams. Some students were absent so much they could never catch up, and others had real life events -- needing to get a job, having a child, or caring for a family member -- that made graduating from high school a distant dream.

Many students felt unsafe, unnoticed, and uninspired, often having higher expectations for themselves than the adults had for them. Most originally aspired to go to college and nearly all, in hindsight, said that dropping out of high school was one of the worst decisions of their lives.

America's dropout challenge was also hidden from the American people. In communities with middle and higher income students, graduating from high school was the norm. In other places, graduation rates were often overestimated by including GEDs, making optimistic assumptions about what happened to students who transferred out, or poor data collection. Finally, in the early part of this century, better data and information started to emerge that identified the nation's "dropout factory" high schools and put real faces and stories to this national tragedy.

America's Promise Alliance, led by General and Mrs. Powell, convened more than 100 dropout summits in 50 states to raise awareness of this national tragedy. Action at the federal and state levels ushered in a new era of accountability around accurate graduation rates and progress to improve them and provided new support to the lowest-performing high schools. Governors from both parties and officials in the Bush and Obama administrations all played key roles in fostering change.

Schools reformed to create more personalized, engaging learning environments and multiple pathways to graduation. And community-based institutions stepped up to provide students the supports they need, often triggered by the early warning indicators of trouble -- chronic absenteeism, behavior problems, and poor performance in reading and math.

Today, the annual update to the nation shows substantial progress. For the first time in history, the nation has crossed the 80 percent graduation rate threshold in 2012, up 10 percentage points from a decade earlier. This means 1.7 million more students graduated, rather than dropping out, over that period.

What's more, the nation is on pace to meet its 90 percent high school graduation rate goal, which means another 2 million students would earn a diploma, translating into higher employment, less incarceration, less poverty, greater civic engagement, and a better economy.

America's opportunity society is under assault, however, and it's time to bring more startling statistics into the light. Graduation rates for students with disabilities are 24 percent in Nevada, while in Kansas and Montana they are 77 and 81 percent, respectively. In 10 states, graduation gaps between low-income and middle to higher income students are more than 20 percentage points, with a nearly 30 point gap in Minnesota.

Graduation rates for African Americans and Hispanics still lag well behind Whites, and young men of color have graduation rates in key states that are in the 60s or even 50s. America cannot reach its 90 percent high school graduation rate without living up to its ideal of an opportunity society.

The variability across states and districts shows that this is not a chronically unfixable problem of poverty, disability or circumstance of birth. In Tennessee, Texas, Kansas and Arkansas, where nearly half or more than half of students are low-income, all have graduation rates among low-income students close to or above 80 percent. California, which has 14 percent of graduating students nationally, 20 percent of low-income students, and huge demographic and budget challenges, has nevertheless seen impressive gains in graduation rates among students of color and from low-income families.

America's creed does not guarantee equality of condition, but it does promise equality of opportunity. Education is fundamental to an opportunity society, and America must redouble its efforts to close its high school graduation gap.

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John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. He is co-author of the Building a Grad Nation report, with Robert Balfanz of the Everyone Graduate's Center at Johns Hopkins University, and in partnership with America's Promise Alliance, led by John Gomperts, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, led by Governor Bob Wise.