It’s that time of year where American teenagers are focused on prom, final exams and graduations. A recent survey shows that we have much to celebrate in the United States, as our high school graduation rates are at the highest rate in our history. U.S. public schools have reached an 80 percent graduation rate. Based on 2012 data, the highest rate was 89 percent found in states like Vermont and (surprisingly) Texas, and the lowest ranking states, scoring below 70 percent, included states as varied as Alaska and Nevada.
The increase is impressive and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan credits efforts of teachers, students and families for their work to make sure kids get what they need to graduate. Initiatives which focused on at-risk kids also helped increase the number of graduates. Still, this is America and caveats must always be made because here, race and class matters.
The increase in minority graduation rate has fueled the impressive increase in the overall rate. Graduation rates for Latinos have increased 15 percent and 9 percent for African-Americans, yet both groups still lagged behind white students overall. Several “dropout factory” schools – schools with graduation rates with less than 60 percent graduation rate – were either closed or turned around with reforms in recent years. Still, nearly 25 percent of black students and 15 percent of Hispanic students attended low performing schools, making them the largest percentage of the 20 percent of students who will not receive a high school diploma.
Even if the students do attend a decent high school, inherent inequities in the education system continue to leave minority students and those with disabilities behind.
Of the high schools with a majority black or Latino students, nearly a quarter of them do not have the needed core classes in math and science considered important to be prepared for college. If the schools have advanced classes, including advanced placement which allows students to earn college credit, minority students are less likely to be enrolled and nearly 20 percent of those enrolled do not score high enough to get college credit. They are also less likely to be enrolled in gifted and talented programs.
The bias begins as early as preschool.
A survey that was released in March showed the results of a comprehensive look at civil rights data in every public school for the past 15 years. Bias in discipline, while very well documented for older students, is prevalent even in preschool. Minority children are held back at a higher rate than white children and are the biggest victims of zero tolerance policies. Black preschool children represented nearly 50 percent of the students suspended even though they only represent 18 percent of the preschool population. Special needs students represent 60 percent of the students disciplined by secluding them from other students or by restraining them.
Most surprisingly, black girls of all ages were suspended at the highest rates – higher than their white counterparts and black males.
This, of course, sets the tone for their future educational lives. These children are often “marked’ by the system and ignored by educators and counselors. Educators know that boredom can lead to discipline problems. Some of the brightest students act out because they aren’t challenged enough. If that bright child is black or brown, bias on behalf of teachers and school officials make them assume the worse, instead of the possibility they could just need to be inspired. However, if the schools lack the resources to challenge those students, it becomes a cycle of failure.
Lower income students have much lower graduation rates and students with disabilities’ graduation rates average 20 percent lower than the national average. In addition to the aforementioned biases, access to opportunity is a great impediment to success.
Experienced teachers are more likely to be placed in schools with lower minority and special needs enrollment, with the new teachers placed with higher risk students and lower performing schools. The lack of experience can lead to lack of intuitive solutions to help the students most in need.
Nevertheless, researchers believe that the current high graduation rate represents an astonishing amount of progress and predicts the U.S. is on its way to a 90 percent high school graduation rate within six years. They point out that focus must be put on those areas of concern, including the income and racial gaps and special needs children. They also note that big cities have the highest concentration of low income students, which also coincides with the areas of the lowest graduation rates.
Yes, celebrate those walking across the stage this graduation season because they deserve the adulation. However, the nation needs to remain focused on the 1 in 5 students who will not be receiving a diploma.