Why federal focus on the lowest performing schools matters

The nation received some good news last week: The achievement gap is finally closing as minority and low-income students continue to drive improving high school graduation rates.  Such progress was unimaginable in 2001 when No Child Left Behind was launched. High school graduation rates had reached their modern low of 70 percent and had been unmovable for the previous 30 years.  Only about 60 percent of low-income, African-American and Latino students were graduating from high school, and whole communities were in danger of being cut off from the 21st century.  

Fast forward to 2013 when high school graduation rates reached an all-time high of more than 81 percent.  Latino and African- American graduation rates have improved by more than 15 and 10 percentage points, respectively.  Even more remarkable: These gains occurred while graduation requirements increased, and more minority and low-income students succeeded on Advanced Placement exams. The greatest improvements occurred since 2008 despite skyrocketing childhood poverty due to the recession. 

{mosads}This dramatic reversal in rates and achievement did not just happen – it occurred only in communities that worked on the problem. Rates and achievement improved because we knew much more about who was dropping out and why, their schools and the signs of trouble. We also learned more about how to improve or replace schools with low graduation rates and how to provide students with the support to stay on track.  Graduation rates took off after 2008 when two other key drivers of progress were added – intensified federal accountability and increased federal support.   

In 2008, in the last days of the Bush Administration, the U.S. Department of Education issued regulations that affirmed a consistent calculation of high school graduation rates across the country and signaled to all high schools that improving those rates mattered. Previously, high schools had the option of focusing on other outcomes or activities. The power of federal accountability to focus attention on key issues is perhaps its greatest strength.  Here it signaled that high schools needed to make graduation the norm for all students. No longer was it acceptable for schools to function as “dropout factories” – the small group of schools that drove the dropout crisis and were almost exclusively attended by low-income and minority students.   

In addition to accountability, federal dollars and guidance – such as comprehensive school reform grants, school improvement grants, and the Investing in Innovation funds – were essential for that small group of schools at the heart of the dropout crisis. Virtually all students in these schools needed good instruction in every class every day and additional support to enable them to attend school regularly, focus in class, and complete their assignments. But these schools were not designed or organized to meet the challenges they faced, and meaningful reform strategies require resources often not available in strapped school districts. Focused reform efforts often supported by federal dollars have made a big difference.

The number of dropout factories declined from 2,000 in 2001 to under 1,200 in 2013. Even more encouraging, the number of low-income, minority students attending these schools plummeted by more than one million. We see a direct link between federally targeted and supported efforts to reform or replace dropout factory high schools and the increase in African American and Latino graduation rates.   

Another example of the power of federal accountability and support to dramatically improve student outcomes is Diplomas Now, a model designed by Johns Hopkins University’s Talent Development Secondary program in partnership with City Year and Communities In Schools for the nation’s schools with the greatest needs. Diplomas Now combines evidence-based reforms to improve teaching and learning for an entire school with extra support for students. An early warning system that tracks attendance, behavior and course performance lets teachers know when students are going off track.  The federal Investing in Innovation program is underwriting a national randomized study and bringing the model to 12 urban school districts, 40 low-performing schools and more than 40,000 students.  Many of these schools have received federal school improvement grants to help implement and sustain the model. Diplomas Now schools in cities such as Boston, New York, Miami, Los Angles, and Columbus, Ohio, have substantially increased graduation rates and academic achievement.  

Evidence is emerging that high schools that received school improvement grants perform better.  The Council of the Great City Schools recently reported that big-city districts in which a significant number of high schools received these grants saw a decline in 9th grade retention rates, keeping more students on track during this critical transition year into high school. This finding is supported by ongoing analysis showing that high schools with school improvement grants improved their promoting power (a proxy for graduation rates) at a greater rate than high schools that were eligible for such grants but were not funded. 

As Congress debates the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we must not take our foot off the gas.  Federal accountability and federal support have helped enable 1.8 million more students, most of them low-income minorities, to graduate from high school. Despite this progress, 1,200 middle and high schools still have low graduation rates, and Latino and African American graduation rates still lag national averages.  

Evidence from the past decade is clear: If federal accountability and federal support target schools with low graduation rates, these schools can improve.  We should intensify our focus on the 660 high schools where half of all African-American boys fall off track. We should use the lessons of the past decade to make this support even more effective. We must accelerate our efforts to provide students in the most challenged schools with the education and support they need to become our nation’s future citizens and leaders.

Balfanz is director of the Everyone Graduates Center, School of Education, Johns Hopkins University.  Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.  They just released an Executive Brief found at:


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