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‘Historic’ high school graduation rate hides a concerning reality

Nicholas C. Donohue | 5/15/2014, 6 a.m.

The recent National Center for Education Statistics’ report that the U.S. high school graduation rate has climbed up to 81 percent — the highest it’s ever been — was widely covered as “good news.” This rate is, in fact, “historic,” but it conceals a far more troubling reality. More students are graduating from high school, but fewer are gaining access to post-secondary success, which today is an essential threshold for personal economic viability. The Nation’s Report Card tells us that the majority of our 12th graders can’t read or add. What is wrong with this picture?

Today, staying in high school and graduating is no longer sufficient. The social and economic imperatives — given the elevation of the skills needed for today’s jobs and the knowledge and dispositions necessary to prepare a democracy forward to a stronger future — require us to forge a pathway for more people, significantly those for whom school has served the least effectively, to attain at levels once held for elite achievers.

NCES data also reveals the variances between students of color and their white counterparts. In the state of Massachusetts, where the graduation rate has reached a historic 83 percent overall, English Language Learners are graduating at a rate of 56 percent, Latino students at 62 percent, and black students at 71 percent compared with white students who are graduating at 89 percent.

But other national findings tell us more. In fact, a report by the Schott Foundation tells us that it will take up to 50 years to close the graduation gap between black males and their white counterparts if we continue at this current pace.

The situation gets worse when readiness for post-secondary success is taken into account. The Boston Foundation, in its 2013 report called “Getting Closer to the Finish Line,” revealed that one in every five Boston Public Schools students make it all the way through high school, graduates, enters college, takes remedial courses, and ends up receiving a college degree. So while we may be graduating more students, it’s clear that graduation does not mean our students are adequately prepared for what comes next.

The good news is that there is a path forward which is different from just continuing to make improvements that may be statistically significant but mathematically incremental and socially insufficient. Like an old building, the public education system needs a 21st-century upgrade so that all learners have access to post-secondary education and career success. Massachusetts students lead the nation, but the pillars of our educational structure are failing and it could very well impact the future of our economy.

By the year 2020, slightly more than a third of the jobs in Massachusetts will require the skills of someone in possession of a post-secondary degree yet only one out of every five Boston Public School graduates earns a college degree today. Business leaders say that their biggest challenge is recruiting skilled workers to fit the jobs they offer. They decry that the problem is a school system in need of “moderate” repair or a “major overhaul,” according to a report of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

The report also suggests remodeling the public education system so that it fits the current needs and dispositions of today’s learner with student-centered teaching practices such as personalized learning, which recognizes that students engage in different ways and different places; competency-based learning, which moves students ahead based on their demonstration of knowledge and not the amount of time that they sit at a desk in a classroom, as well as makes room for learning to take place anytime and anywhere; and last, giving students ownership over their own learning so that they can develop grit and think and improve on their own. The current educational system is not able to sustain these learning practices and we must therefore consider ways to remodel it so that it does.

Taking steps to modernize public systems of education in Massachusetts will support a prosperous future for the state. It will also prepare a citizenry to lead our great state forward. And it will secure Massachusetts position as a leader of educational change and improvement in the United States.

Nicholas C. Donohue is president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.