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Large West Coast School Districts Pave the Way for State and National Graduation Rate Success

School districts in Washington state and California are taking education into their own hands and using data to improve graduation rates. As four percent of American school districts educate 40 percent of the student population, big districts like these are crucial to reaching the national 90 percent graduation rate goal, as noted in the 2015 Building a Grad Nation report.

The CORE Districts in California and the Road Map Project in Washington are setting the standard for large district-based improvement. The two multidistrict collaborations embody the concept of community collective action transposed into education, driven by shared vision and drawing on contributors’ strengths.

The Road Map Project consists of seven King County districts and the southern half of Seattle Public Schools. The CORE Districts, made up of 10 school districts, place an emphasis on collective learning among low- and high-performing schools through peer mentoring and shared strategies.

“When schools persistently struggle, the first line now is to build capacity from schools that are successful. It’s a cross-district commitment to collaboration,” said John Deasy, former superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, in an article.

By focusing on collaboration across districts, CORE also prioritizes low-income and high-minority schools. This attention is important as the country’s largest 500 districts, like CORE, also educate 58 percent of the country’s minority students and 47 percent of its low-income students, according to the report.

As a result of CORE efforts, Fresno Unified School District, an original CORE member, has increased its graduation rate from 69 percent in 2009-2010 to 79 percent in 2013-14, the report notes.

Similarly, in Washington, graduation rates are increasing due to data-driven, collaborative efforts among large districts, such as implementing Early Warning Systems for at-risk students. Just eight years ago, Tacoma Public Schools had all of its high schools added to a “dropout factory” list created by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools. After following the example of the Road Map Project, the district now has a graduation rate of 78 percent.

Districts like CORE and the Road Map Project are leading the way toward the 90 percent national goal. The top quarter of the 500 largest districts have had average gains of 8.4 percent in the past five years, which is over triple the national average, according to the report.

One quarter (124/500) of the top 500 districts had graduation rate gains of more than six percentage points from 2011 to 2013 (averaging 8.4 percentage points, more than triple the national average). These districts are 61 percent low-income and educate 10 percent of the nation’s public high school students.

On the other end of the spectrum, low graduation rates in some large districts are leading to backsliding in their states’ progress. For example, as Illinois’ four largest districts saw graduation rates decline, the state’s overall graduation rate declined as well, the report notes.

There are a combined 169 districts (one-third) that made little to no improvement or lost ground. Some of these are high-poverty, high-minority districts. Others had high initial graduation rates but have recently stagnated, such as some large districts in Texas.

Despite having to navigate enormous complexities, from student composition and population shifts to state regulations and funding, reaching a 90 percent national graduation rate is possible with progress by big school districts around the country. Continued gains will depend on steady increases for those large districts that are already improving, like CORE and the Road Map Project; renewed energy and attention from those that are leveling off; and a redoubling of efforts and additional support for those that are struggling.

GradNation Numbers at a Glance:

  • There are 500 public school districts with K-12 enrollments of 15,000 students or more that collectively educate 40 percent of all public school students, 58 percent of the nation’s African American and Hispanic/Latino students, and 47 percent of its low-income students.
  • One-quarter (124) of the top 500 largest school districts saw improvements of six or more percentage points, and on average gained 8.4 percentage points, more than three times the national average. These districts are 61 percent low-income and educate 10 percent of the nation’s public high school students.
  • One-sixth (88) of the top 500 largest school districts had graduation rate gains of four percentage points (one percentage point over the national average).
  • There are a combined 169 districts (one-third) that made little to no improvement or lost ground. Some of these are high-poverty, high-minority districts. Others, with lower poverty rates and minority student populations, had high initial graduation rates but have recently stagnated.


NOTE: This article is part of a web series on the “Five Drivers” from the 2015 Building a Grad Nation report co-authored by Civic Enterprise and Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education. To read the full report, visit www.gradnation.org/gradreport. To get state-by-state data of each state’s progress in addressing the dropout challenge, visit The Civic Marshall Plan State Indices at http://new.every1graduates.org/building-a-grad-nation-2014-2015-update/.