Congrats / Nick Lee

October 17, 2016; Education Week

Data recently released by the U.S. Department of Education show that in 2015, not only did high school graduation rates continue to improve, but they hit an all-time high for the second year in a row. As headlines proclaim almost daily the disastrous state of our schools, this surprising result should spark some serious pondering among educational policymakers.

According to Education Week’s analysis of the data, these strong overall results were widespread among various sectors of the student body. Furthermore, the gap between white and black students is closing.

Graduation rates have now risen for students overall from 79 percent in the 2010-11 school year—the first year all states used the same method to calculate graduation rates. But over that same period graduation rates for black students rose even faster, by 7.6 percent. And graduation rates for Hispanic students grew by 6.8 percent. What’s more, the rates for English-language learners, students in special education, and disadvantaged students also grew faster than for students overall.

Improved outcomes were seen across the nation, with only two states, Wyoming and Arizona, not showing gains of more than one percent since 2011.

Do these results offer proof that worries about American education have been overblown, and we should stop trying to fix a problem that just doesn’t exist? Or do they indicate that some of the school reform strategies put in place over the past two decades are finally bearing fruit?l

From President Obama’s perspective, as he laid out in a recent speech, these results are directly tied to some of his policies.

“Some of the changes we made were hard, and some of them were controversial. But the hard work we put in across the country has started to pay off.”

In particular, he talked about the administration’s push to increase investments in early-childhood education. He name-checked Race to the Top, which he said inspired states to raise standards. He said the U.S. Department of Education has invested in teacher training, recruitment and retention.

Interestingly, the president did not cite several of the more controversial elements from the school reform playbook. Three elements of the approach favored by those who believe improvement is tied to unleashing the power of the marketplace—parental choice, charter schools, and vouchers—were not on his list of effective interventions. Neither was the impact of an improving economy, slow as its changes may be, seen as critical to educational improvements.

For some, the connection of good graduation outcomes to one or more societal factors or strategies has yet to be confirmed. Laura Hamilton, the associate director of RAND Education, told Education Week, “It’s tough to claim that increases or changes in graduation rates are the result of any particular policy, either at the state or federal level. A number of factors could be leading to this…we need more evidence before we can attribute it to any particular administration, or to state or federal dollars.”

Perhaps these results come not from real improvement but from a lowering of our standards, making it easier to graduate. Results from other tests, like the NAEP, have not shown this kind of consistent and widespread improvement. Ms. Hamilton noted, “Lots of kids graduate and go onto postsecondary education and need a lot of remedial coursework. We also want some assurances that we are seeing increases in skills and knowledge.”

This story can’t end with victory declared just because it makes for good politics. Figuring this puzzle out is critical for millions of children. If one or more strategies have truly led to improved education, we should be working to focus our educational resources in those directions. If outside factors like an improved economy have brought about this l for millions of children. ics effective strategies. d if things are “st ons. If outside factors, like an improved economy, arechange, it would be reasonable to shift our energy from what is happening inside each school to larger community improvement efforts. And if things are “better” only because we are lowering the bar, we will still be searching for effective strategies.—Martin Levine