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What’s Working: How Five Governors Plan to Raise High School Graduation Rates

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

Raising high school graduation rates, research shows, is one of the best investments a state can make in K-12 education. So how many governors are taking it seriously?

Out of 39 state of the state addresses given so far, only a dozen governors mentioned high school graduation rates. Out of that number, only five either prioritized raising graduation rates or laid specific plans for how to raise them.

Here’s how those five governors plan to invest in their states by raising high school graduation rates:

Alaska: Rethink the entire education system.

To improve graduation rates and better prepare young people for the future, Alaska Governor Bill Walker said the State Board of Education will prioritize the following areas: improving student learning; ensuring excellent educators; modernizing the system; inspiring tribal and community ownership; and promoting safety and well-being.

“Alaska has long ranked in the bottom tier of the nation in student education achievement and graduation rates,” Walker said. “To meet this challenge, we need to rethink our entire system of public education.”

New Mexico: Don’t lower standards. Raise them.

While some have argued that higher graduation rates across the country are the result of lowered standards, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez says that’s not the case in her state. She touted higher graduation rates and higher standards:

“We raised the bar for graduation so that a diploma is more than just a piece of paper - it is a guarantee that our kids are ready. And yesterday, I was proud to announce that our graduation rates are up by 8 percentage points since 2011. The graduation rate is now the highest this state has ever seen - and that is after we raised graduation standards. You see, when we raise the bar, our kids rise to our expectations every time. We cannot be afraid to challenge them.”

Oregon: Create a “graduation equity fund.”

Graduation rates are a top priority for Oregon Governor Kate Brown. She plans to raise them by addressing equity, trauma, and underserved communities:

“Our schools continue to be among the nation’s leaders in all the wrong categories—the largest class size, the shortest school year, and the highest drop-out rate,” Brown said. “And let me be clear: My top priority is improving Oregon’s high school graduation rates.”

Brown went a step further in laying out a plan to increase graduation rates: “My proposed budget creates a graduation equity fund. It will be used to address school attendance, help students who are experiencing trauma, and make investments in underserved communities.”

Georgia: Emphasize elementary schools.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal laid out a plan to reduce the number of chronically failing schools in the state by tackling the problem early in a child’s education:

“[Georgia] will place an emphasis on elementary schools. If we can reverse this alarming trend [of failing schools] early on…then our reading comprehension scores, math skills, graduation rates, and the quality of our workforce will all improve considerably.”

Washington: Increase funding, the number of caring adults, and connections between school and career.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee spoke of a vocational school he visited where students told him “how their career-connected training helped them see the relevance of their education and offered them a vision for their future they never saw in a traditional classroom.” From that visit, he concluded, “Put these students to work while they are in high school and watch graduation rates climb.”

He went on to stress the importance of school funding. “Imagine what fully funding education will mean,” Inslee said. “Imagine more students graduating because we have psychologists, nurses and counselors who can help them cross the finish line.”

Join the GradNation Learning Community
To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to  Krista O’Connell with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.

Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative
The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.  

To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.

Eva Harder is a writer and editor at America’s Promise Alliance. Jenn Hatfield is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on charter schools, state academic standards, and state and federal K-12 education policy.