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Arne Duncan Touts Study Showing 25 Percent Dip in Number of Drop-Outs

A new study released by four education groups reports that the number of high school drop-outs per class has been cut by nearly a quarter, from roughly a million in 2008 to 750,000 in 2014. 

"Progress Is No Accident: Why ESEA Can't Backtrack on High School Graduation Rates"  also reports that the number of high school "dropout factories" (those schools in which less than 60 percent of students don't graduate) has also declined significantly, from just over 2,000 in 2002 to 1,040 in 2014. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others discussed the report and its implications at the same time as a White House summit on "Next Generation" high schools, which is intended to highlight secondary schools that stress real-world experiences and STEM programs.

To maintain the recent graduation rate success, the groups behind "Progress is No Accident" argue that key accountability and reporting requirements pertaining to graduation that were adopted during the administrations of President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush must be maintained.

The groups also say that school-based reforms, including curriculum redesign, personalization, and simply making time for teachers and administrators to collaborate on school improvement, are also key. 

The Alliance for Excellent Education, America's Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and the Everybody Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University collaborated to write the study. 

In a conference call with reporters today to discuss the results, Duncan said that cutting the drop-out rate is one of the "toughest challenges" facing the nation's schools. 

"The stakes today have never been higher," Duncan said.

Duncan also took the opportunity to highlight the nation's concurrent rising graduation rate, which hit an all-time high for the 2012-13 school year and might reach another record level for 2013-14, according to preliminary data released by the Education Department. And he reiterated the importance of the Obama administration's goal of having the graduation rate hit 90 percent by 2020—for the 2012-13 school year, it stood at 81 percent. 

But it's questionable to what extent Duncan is justified in crediting his policies for the rising graduation rates. Should the same skepticism and questions apply here?

Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, has his own take. On the call, he highlighted two key changes by the Education Department in the last seven years: the decision in 2008, under President Bush, to mandate that all states use the same calculation method for tallying up their graduation rates, and the move in 2011 by Duncan to require high schools with relatively low graduation rates to make changes.

"Data without action doesn't do much for you," Wise said to stress the importance of both changes working in concert.

And the news from "Progress is No Accident" is far from entirely rosy, in large part due to racial disparities. For example, the study reports that in 15 states, the gap in graduation rates between white students and their African-American peers is more than 15 percentage points. And African-American and Hispanic students make up at least 90 percent of the student enrollment at half of the high schools with the lowest graduation rates. 

So what are the secrets of the most successful schools? Bob Balfanz, the co-director of the Everybody Graduates Center, said that those schools have crafted changes that target both the children when they're in the classroom and the school employees when they're preparing for the classroom. 

"It's really been that combination of instructional improvement paired with student supports, and finding ways to have adult collaboration," Balfanz said. 

High school turnarounds, and turnaround efforts in general, have been a big focus of the Obama administration, but with very mixed results, as we've seen with the School Improvement Grant program. 


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