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Balfanz and Bridgeland: Reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Bipartisan support for education reform over the past decade is starting to pay dividends on the high school dropout epidemic. Across two administrations and half a dozen Congresses, consistent progress has been made to boost student achievement and help more schools be accountable for results.

This week, we released a report showing that in the first decade of the 21st century, high school graduation rates have increased significantly across 29 states and the number of “dropout factory” high schools, those graduating only 60 percent or fewer of their students, has declined by 261 schools. Across the nation, the number of students attending these dropout factory schools declined by 400,000 from the class of 2002 to the class of 2008.

Tennessee and New York led the nation in boosting high school graduation rates, with breakthrough gains of 15 percent and 10 percent, respectively. In some states, such as Tennessee, Texas, Alabama and Georgia, there were declines in the number of dropout factory high schools in suburbs, towns, cities and rural areas, showing the importance of statewide efforts.

Most of the progress in moving high schools from the dropout factory list occurred in the South, where the problem has been most severe. Texas and Georgia led the way with 77 and 36 fewer dropout factory schools, respectively.

There were also gains in the most unexpected places — in urban school districts and in single high school districts in low-income areas. In New York City, the nation’s largest public school system, the city’s progress drove a 10-point gain for New York state from 2002 to 2008. Strong leadership, replacing large schools with more personalized learning environments, new leaders and new teachers with supports for each, and an increased focus on rising to a standard of excellence and ensuring accountability for results helped produce success.

On the other end of the spectrum, when Richmond, Ind., learned its high school was on the list of dropout factories, more than 30 partners across government, education, school boards, business and community organizations coordinated a strategic response. Together with school reforms, better partnerships with higher education and a doubling of Communities in Schools supports, high school graduation rates soared from 53 percent in 2006 to 80 percent in 2009.

Many of the policies that were advanced by the previous and current administrations and by bipartisan efforts in the Congress are bearing fruit and making accelerated gains possible.

The No Child Left Behind Act, led by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and John Boehner (R-Ohio), was a signature initiative of the Bush administration and ushered in a new era of good data and accountably for progress across states, districts and schools. Achievement gaps are now out in the open, with better information that allows schools to set goals and work to achieve them.

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, with support from a bipartisan Congress, have initiated Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants that have fueled innovation in the states around data systems, teacher effectiveness, adoption of standards to help students achieve in college and the workplace, and efforts to turn around low-performing schools such as the nation’s dropout factories.

While significant progress has been made because of these and other reforms at the national, state and local levels, we must increase our efforts fivefold to meet the national goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate for the class of 2020.

Our report does not stop with signs of progress. It issues a challenge and a “civic marshall plan” of action. We target the 1,746 remaining dropout factory high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools by creating concrete benchmarks for on-track reading, reducing chronic absenteeism, developing early warning systems that predict students at risk of dropping out, increasing school- and community-based supports, and fostering the school transformation that ensure more students achieve.

Our case studies of states and schools that are beating the odds show that by raising standards and strengthening curriculum, coupled with higher expectations and more supports for students and teachers, great progress can be made.

Recent developments demonstrate that accelerated progress is possible and that education reforms are central to success. Thanks to the No Child Left Behind law, graduation rates will be measured for the first time this year consistently across the country, and states and school districts will set goals and annual targets and be accountable for meeting them. Thanks to the current Congress and administration, the federal government is making historic investments in school transformation and targeting the schools that are dropping out the most students. The Serve America Act, adopted with strong bipartisan majorities in the Senate and House in 2009, is showing the power of national service to mobilize full-time boots on the ground to provide the academic, emotional and peer supports to keep students on track.

Thanks to Colin and Alma Powell and their America’s Promise Alliance, more than 100 dropout summits in all 50 states have awakened the nation to the individual, societal and economic costs of the dropout crisis.

As our nation continues to meet the high school dropout challenge, a bipartisan Congress can continue to lead the way with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, building on the very progress that has been made over the past decade. Every student deserves a chance to fulfill their dreams, and thanks to the efforts of so many leaders at the federal, state and community levels, more students will graduate from high school, prepared for college and the increasing demands of a globally competitive workforce.

Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and John M. Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, are co-authors of “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic,” released with America’s Promise Alliance on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

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