Our guest author today is Stanley Litow, adjunct professor at Duke and Columbia Universities. At Duke, he also serves as Innovator in Residence. He previously served as Deputy Schools Chancellor for New York City and is President Emeritus of the IBM Foundation and a member of the Albert Shanker Institute Board of Directors.
Over the last 35 years, since the release of A Nation At Risk, the nation has focused on the need for school reform and used high school graduation rates as the single most important benchmark for measuring educational success. This is somewhat ironic, given that high school attendance in the U.S. was not made mandatory until the end of the Second World War. Before that, virtually every state had a requirement for school attendance from grade one through grade eight, but high school attendance, just like college attendance now, was strictly voluntary. Of course, in the first half of the 20th century, significant numbers of well paying jobs in manufacturing and other areas of work only required an eighth grade education. Beginning in the 1970s and into 1984 and over the following three decades, the number of good jobs with competitive wages that were available to those who had only completed eighth grade began a precipitous decline. For many years, it has been clear that a high school diploma or higher is absolutely essential to achieving a pathway to a middle class life. America's response to the challenge of raising the percentage of high school graduates was far from perfect, but with exceptions, we have seen a steady increase in high school graduation rates in most though not all states. Beginning in the early years of the 21st Century, however, changes in the U.S. economy have made it crystal clear that high school diplomas, while still extremely important, are not enough to enable most Americans to achieve the “middle-class dream.”
In this light, the recent report, "Building a Grad Nation," is an important read. It documents the progress that the nation has made in higher high school graduation rates—the overall high school graduation rate showed an increase from 79 percent in 2011 to close to 85 percent by 2017. This statistic represents an increase of 3.5 million U.S. students who graduated from high school instead of dropping out over the last 15 years.