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GradNation: A Decade of Progress & Lessons Learned

Monika Kincheloe

Rewind a decade. America’s graduation rate lingered under 75 percent and there was a clear sense that something needed to change. That’s when the GradNation campaign was born to unify and mobilize the nation to respond to the “dropout epidemic.” 

In 2010 following 105 community summits spotlighting the need for dropout prevention and under the leadership of then-President Barack Obama, General Colin Powell and Alma Powell, and former education secretary Arne Duncan, the campaign set the national goal of a high school graduation rate of 90 percent by 2020. 

State of GradNation: By the Numbers
  • The graduation rate number itself is up to 84.6 percent for the class of 2017. (Remember: There is a routine lag in the data reporting, so we won’t know the graduation rate for the class of 2020 until 2021 or 2022.)
  • 50.8 million young people just started a new school year. 

o    Of those young people, 15.3 million are in high school 
o    Of those high schoolers, about 3.7 million are expected to graduate in 2020 (source).

What We’ve Learned

While leaders at all levels and across sectors have made important progress and millions of additional young people have graduated on time, we are off-track to reach the goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. These are the three lessons and areas of action that position the nation well to support more young people to the graduation milestone. 

1.    We took the time to understand the lives of young people who struggle in and/or leave school

Our Center for Promise traveled the country and heard from over 3,000 young people who revealed the complexity of leaving school (source). Their experiences teach us three things that remain true today:

    Young people disengage from education for multiple and complex reasons, including the support (or lack thereof) from adults, school policies, and peer influences, among others. 
    Young people disengage when their environments are toxic. In their communities and at school, young people who left school before graduating reported fear of and exposure to violence, abuse, and trauma. 
    Young people disengage when their search for connectedness is unmet by adults in their lives. Young people thrived when they were connected to individuals and institutions that helped them through challenges. 

While the youth we heard from displayed tremendous amounts of courage, resilience, and optimism, they still need more support to put them and keep them on a path to adult success. When we put the perspectives and experiences of young people at the center, we can more fully understand the barriers that push academics down the priority list. Investigations like this are just the beginning; we must bring the practice of putting youth at the center to scale. 

2.    Communities are supporting schools and students in innovative ways 

There have long been a number of dedicated public sector, non-profit, and business leaders supporting community efforts to improve graduation rates. While in the past, these efforts at times lacked strategic connection or resulted in fragmented services that did not achieve scale, efforts are now moving towards alignment and integration. Communities are working simultaneously to interrupt the previous “business as usual” practices and shift to practices that put youth at the center. 

Whether it is City Year corps members providing near peer mentorship or Communities in Schools coordinators tracking student needs, the non-profit youth development sector is rapidly increasing its ability to serve and impact the education system. 

Many more places are undertaking community-led initiatives to empower youth and adults to better meet young people’s needs. This includes our partner, the Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness, who is working to establish youth-led wellness councils in up to nine middle and high schools and use youth participatory action research to identify and address issues.  

3.    We are getting better at understanding whether graduating from high school is the same thing as being ready for all that life offers after graduation.

The truth is that even when good people are doing all the hard work to support students, it can still result in situations where young people graduate but are not prepared for college courses or the career they choose. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, 46 states created college- and career-ready (CCR) measures to create accountability on more than just graduation rates and standardized tests in the high school years (CCR measures include things like AP and IB course-taking, dual enrollment, SAT and ACT scores, among others). According to the first compilation of this data, there is a noteworthy gap between a state’s graduation rate and it’s CCR measure. In many states this data is not disaggregated by sub-group, incomplete, or missing, leaving holes in our ability to understand the readiness gap. Knowing more can help us to respond to postsecondary transition issues like course shifts in high school, addressing college remediation needs, and employer feedback about workplace readiness. Needless to say, there is still plenty of work to do to match the high school experience with what life expects of young people after graduation. 

What’s in store for GradNation in 2020 and beyond?

1.    We are going to finish the job. Closing the national graduation rate gaps demands that we interrupt the connection between race and class and graduating. We have to reverse the mindsets that prevent us from matching resources with the communities, schools, and young people who stand to benefit most from them. 

2.    Young people must graduate ready for college and career. Let’s keep interrogating the connection between diploma requirements and readiness but not at the expense of multiple postsecondary pathways. 

3.    Young people must graduate in a state of positive well-being. Learning is social and emotional. We need to pay much closer attention to all the settings in which young people learn – before and after school, at home and in the community, and during the summer months. 

In every effort, we must build our collective capacity to put young people at the center of our work and intentionally achieve scale to meet their needs. We have long to-do list and we’re ready to get to work.