Why I Wear 80

Graduation CapsWhen I take the court tonight for the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game, I’ll be wearing a number that signifies some great news – thanks to the hard work of our nation’s students, parents, and educators.

The number I’ll wear – 80 – is rarely seen on a basketball jersey – but represents a record in education.

That number – 80 percent — is the newly announced high school graduation rate, the highest in American history. Never before have 4 out of 5 American students completed high school. We have further to go, but this is a moment to celebrate the hard work of our educators.

Often in sports, but rarely in education, do you hear about the heroes whose skill, hard work, creativity and tenacity resulted in an achievement the whole country should know about. We should all take heart from the passionate, caring work being done in classrooms, schools, and communities across the country.

Who’s to credit for this progress? Here, as elsewhere, you can be sure that the best ideas come from outside Washington, D.C. The best ideas come from teachers, principals, superintendents, and other educators who are determined to see their students succeed.

These ideas come from communities like Seattle, Wash., where Grover Cleveland High School was struggling just a few years ago. But Cleveland’s educators and students wouldn’t let the school fail.

photolockerWith federal grant funds and other reform dollars, Cleveland transformed from a traditional neighborhood high school to one that emphasized project-based learning, connected students with mentors in the surrounding community, and offered internships in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. School leaders and staff met every week and included parents, employers and other partners in designing a new approach to learning.

Cleveland seized the opportunity to innovate, and it worked. The school’s four-year-graduation rate rose from 60.5% in 2011 to 75% in 2013.  And in 2013, Cleveland was named a Washington State School of Distinction.

Elsewhere, in Tennessee and the District of Columbia, state and local leaders looked honestly at student underperformance – and did something about it. They raised standards, strengthened classroom instruction, and revamped systems for teacher support and evaluation.

At Cleveland – and at schools in states from Ohio to Texas – change was, and is, hard. It takes tenacity, compassion, and courage from both students and educators.

The 80 percent number – the graduation rate for the class of 2011* — represents not only the collective progress we’ve made as a nation, but individually as communities, schools, students, and families.

But I see 80 percent as a starting point. We have so much further to go – for the one in five students who don’t graduate; for the many who graduate less than fully prepared for college; and for the groups of students that, despite recent progress, are achieving and graduating at lower rates. The potential of American students is limitless – it’s on our schools, families and communities to help them achieve at higher levels.

All students should have the opportunity to achieve in high school and thrive in whatever career or college they pursue. We owe 100 percent of our students that chance.

Today, I’ll celebrate where we are, and recognize where we need to go.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

*2010-2011 Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate

High School Graduation Rate at Highest Level in Three Decades

A new report from the Department of Education shows that high school graduation rates are at their highest level since 1974. According to the report, during the 2009-10 school year, 78.2 percent of high school students nationwide graduated on time, which is a substantial increase from the 73.4 percent recorded in 2005-6. The report shows that graduation rates were up for all ethnic groups in 2010, and that the rate for Hispanic students has jumped almost 10 points since 2006. 

US map of graduation rates

The report, from ED’s National Center for Education Statistics, also provides state-by-state data on high school dropouts. While the nation’s overall dropout rate is declining, Secretary Arne Duncan noted yesterday that the dropout rate is still “unsustainably high for a knowledge-based economy and still unacceptably high in our African-American, Latino, and Native-American communities.” 

Graph of dropout rates by race/ethnicity

Click here to read the entire report, including data per state, race/ethnicity and gender.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education