Why Are More Kids Graduating High School?

Richard MurnaneBrad Plumer at Wonk Blog tells us, High-School Graduation Rates Are Rising—But No One Knows Why. He is reporting on a paper by Richard Murnane of Harvard who looked at graduation rates from 1970 to the present. In general, graduation rates declined until 2000 and since then, they’ve be going up—fast. But here’s the thing: no one knows why it went down before. And no one knows why it is going up now. But I have a couple of ideas.

Here is the critical graph:

High School Graduation Rate

They can’t explain this graph. But they have some ideas, of course. One is that it is lead. At this point, I’m not going to dismiss any speculation that the removal of lead has made us infinitely healthier, smarter, and less violent. But most of the lead was gone by the 1970s, and I would think we would have seen an effect earlier than 2000. Another idea is students are now being better prepared for tests, so they feel more confident that they can graduate. I don’t know about that: they weren’t testing kids for graduation back in 1980. Or maybe it is just that the moon is in the seventh house or some such.

I would love to dive into the raw data, because I have a few ideas of my own. Starting in 1980, there really is no trend: kids are graduating at the same rate that they always were. But then, in the mid-1990s, graduation levels drop. I remember that time: jobs were for the asking. So it is not surprising that a lot of marginal students would decide they were better off just getting a job. Then the economy goes into recession and thanks to the stewardship of George W. Bush, we pretty much stay that way until the economy implodes. Jobs are harder to find so why not stay in school. (This second part comes from the original paper.)

The data conform very well to this narrative. But the question remains: what happened in the period 1975 to 1980? This is a weird period with low unemployment then high then low then high. Given this volatility, it is hard to imagine students being able to make a rational employment/school decision based upon the economy. I tend to think that something else must have been going on. It was, after all, a fairly gloomy period. Just the same, “morning in America” didn’t cause a further decrease in graduation rates. But that may be because those inclined to despair were already despairing.

Regardless, it is kind of nice to see this improvement. Still, it is hard for me to believe that even now almost 20% of boys drop out of high school.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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