Five Reasons I’m Optimistic About the Class of 2020

President & CEO, America's Promise Alliance

I don’t have teenage kids any more, but I do have a special interest in the nearly 4 million kids who are just starting high school right now.

Back in 2010, the GradNation campaign set a goal of 90 percent high school graduation by 2020, and we’ve made great progress since then, reaching an all-time high graduation rate of 82.3 percent. 

But the class that’s just entering the ninth grade – the class of 2020 – will determine whether we meet the GradNation goal. Will nine out of 10 of the students now starting ninth grade walk across the stage with their classmates in the spring of 2020? 

While many challenges remain, I’m optimistic. Here’s why.

  1. Lots of people are working hard to raise graduation rates.

    The GradNation campaign has been successful in bringing attention, focus and energy to the graduation challenge. As a result, people are working hard – at kitchen tables and in classrooms, in superintendents’ offices and city halls and state capitals – to increase high school graduation rates.

    The greatest credit goes to students, families and teachers who are putting in the work and showing great determination and resolve, sometimes in the face of great challenge.

    These one-by-one efforts in households and classrooms are being supported by key leaders and important initiatives at every level.

    The last two presidents and their secretaries of education have put great emphasis on raising graduation rates. President Obama and then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined with General Colin Powell and Alma Powell to set the 90 percent-by-2020 goal. We’ve heard repeatedly about the progress in the President’s State of the Union addresses.

    Similarly, governors have focused on improving graduation rates. Nineteen of them mentioned graduation rates in their state-of-the-state addresses this past year, and there are state initiatives in every corner of the nation.

    Kentucky, a state with a poverty rate higher than the national average, has achieved one of the country’s lowest graduation gaps between low-income students and their peers. A new report from Civic Enterprises will help others learn from Kentucky’s example.

    The Governor of Oregon has made a top priority of improving that state’s dismal bottom-five high school graduation rate. In November, Oregon residents will vote on a ballot measure to invest more in high school students as a way to increase their graduation rates.

    There is action at the community level, too. Over the past three years, nearly 100 communities from Anchorage to Wilmington have convened GradNation Community summits to get all the major local players in one room at one time to focus on ways to improve graduation rates.

    In Arizona, a bipartisan group of mayors has come together to develop and share strategies to boost graduation rates in each of their cities. 

    At the same time, some of the nation’s most dynamic and entrepreneurial nonprofit organizations have focused on high school graduation. Communities in Schools, City Year, Thread, and Spark have all put their energy and ingenuity to work to help more young people walk across the stage wearing a mortar board and grabbing that diploma.

  2. The GradNation effort is data-driven.

    One of the key drivers of the increase in graduation rates has been the increasing availability of high-quality data on how students, schools, districts, states and the nation are doing. 

    The annual Building a Grad Nation report and other state and local reporting of grad rates create powerful accountability measures, allowing everyone to see who’s making progress. Those who aren’t feel the pressure to step up their game.

    Thanks to data, we can identify the schools that are graduating fewer than two-thirds of their students, for example, and which schools, cities and states are showing the largest or smallest graduation gaps by family income, race, ethnicity and ability.

    Early-warning systems have helped identify individual students most at-risk for leaving school without graduating. The early warning about which students are struggling – with attendance, reading, behavior – helps adults figure out what’s going on and get these students the support they need in time to change course.

    The Data Quality Campaign reports that early-warning systems have been implemented in 31 states so far. In the most recent state rankings, New Mexico had the nation’s lowest graduation rate, and as part of her response, Governor Susanna Martinez moved to invest state money in early warnings.

  3. We know more about why some kids don’t graduate on time.

    And it’s not about being bored. Research – from The Silent Epidemic to Don’t Call Them Dropouts and Don’t Quit on Me – shows that most young people who don’t graduate on time have lives that are enormously complicated and challenging, often marked by abuse, homelessness, neglect, hunger, violence and illness. We’ve also learned a lot more about the impact of early stress and adversity on young people’s development.

    All this knowledge is prompting school and community leaders to develop

    responses that meet the challenges that young people face – they need help finding resources like clean clothes and meals, and they need people who believe in them.

    Colorado recently made headlines for the millions of dollars it saved by investing in more school counselors, who had a huge impact on students’ lives, grades and graduation rates.

    Young people want to graduate and get ahead. Whatever they may say in the moment (I do remember living with teenagers), they want and need us on their side.

  4. The gains in graduation rates have been steady, and we know what’s driving progress.

    We’ve seen real progress in graduation rates over the past decade. For 30 years, the graduation rate had been stuck at just over 70 percent. Since 2006, the nation’s graduation rate has increased every year, reaching a high of 82.3 percent in 2014.

    I’d be as skeptical as the next guy if graduation rates had quickly spiked. But that isn’t the story. The progress in graduation rates over the past decade has been steady, incremental, year over year – not a one-time spike.

    Overall, the increase in graduation rates means that about 2 million additional young people have graduated from high school over the decade.  Significantly, we've seen the greatest increases among students of color and students from low-income families. Nationally and in many cities and states, the gaps are narrowing.

    We have a long way to go and serious challenges to overcome. Nearly 500,000 young people still leave high school without graduating each year. And while we’ve had success in reducing achievement gaps, it remains the case that a disproportionate number of non-graduates are students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.

    But we know what to do to meet these challenges. Leaders on all levels in all sectors need to come together to elevate high school graduation to a top priority, use data to hold themselves accountable and help guide efforts, get real about the lives of young people growing up in challenging circumstances, and put in the time and hard work it takes to make a difference.

    I don’t mean to make it sound simple, just doable.

  5. The spotlight is on.

    People are watching how students are doing, whether schools are performing, if districts are making progress, and whether states are taking this challenge seriously. 

    National and local media outlets are following the story. And new media outlets dedicated to education, including The 74 Million, Education Post and the Hechinger Report, are adding reporting and commentary on grad rates.

    Graduation is alive on social media, too. In the first six months of this year, the #GradNation hashtag reached 6.6 million and garnered 65.2 million potential impressions with nearly 12,000 tweets.

    Even the skepticism around graduation rates – from organizations like the Fordham Institute and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times – gives me hope. It means that more people are paying attention to graduation rates and bringing more accountability.

    There is no question that maintaining and even increasing the pace of progress will be a stiff challenge. Members of the class of 2020 will have to work hard to graduate. And if we are to make the goal that 9 out of 10 of them walk across the stage and receive their diploma in the spring of 2020, we will have to work hard with them – providing the support and encouragement that all young people need. 

    If students do their part and we do ours, we will have a big collective win – for kids and for the nation, and for all of us who believe that we can solve big problems when we work together.