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Later this week, the NC Department of Public Instruction will release graduation rates for the 2012-13 school year.  I do not know whether the statewide average rate will increase or decrease, but I do know one thing.  If the rate increases, the media and public school advocacy crowd will credit years of "investments" by Democrats.  If the rate decreases, Republicans will be blamed.  The truth is that neither Democrats nor Republicans deserve the credit or the blame.

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On Thursday, state education officials will release the four- and five-year "cohort" graduation rate for the 2012-13 school year.

The four-year rate measures the percentage of students that enter ninth-grade and graduate four years later.  The same principle applies to the five-year rate.  Both are adjusted to account for students who leave, as well as those who enroll, in North Carolina public schools during high school.

The NC Department of Public Instruction reported that last year’s graduation rate, 80.4 percent, was the highest in NC history, and 2011-12 was the sixth consecutive year of improvement (see Facts and Stats).  What is the dirty little secret about this?  State education officials, and education researchers generally, have no idea why the graduation rate is on the rise.

Of course, there are plenty of theories.  My friends on the left will contend that it is all about the spending — on pre-kindergarten programs, dropout prevention programs, literacy coaches, and the like.  While these explanations have an intuitive logic, there is no evidence of a causal relationship between spending on these initiatives and the graduation rate.

Indeed, nations that spend significantly less on public education have graduation rates that are considerably higher than the United States average.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the average graduation rate in the U.S. in 2011 was 77.4 percent.  That trailed the international average by approximately five percentage points and was far below Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, Canada, and 17 other OECD member nations.

Melissa Morris’s dissertation, "The Relationship Between State Fiscal Effort And State Graduation Rates: A Longitudinal Study," (Old Dominion University, 2012) is also instructive.  Morris examined statewide cohort graduation rates from 2002 to 2009 and concluded that higher spending did not boost graduation rates.  Rather, she found that the mandates contained in the federal No Child Left Behind law might have had a positive effect on graduation rates.  She wrote,

The results of this study did not support the interaction effect of fiscal effort categories and time on graduation rates, nor did it support the main effect of fiscal effort categories on graduation rates. The major findings from this study did show a statistically significant relationship between time and graduation rates for both increasing and decreasing fiscal effort categories. This finding suggests NCLB legislation has had a significant impact on graduation rates. Furthermore, these results refute previous research which reports high-stakes testing, commonly associated with NCLB legislation, negatively impacts graduation rates.

Perhaps No Child Left Behind wasn’t so bad after all.

Others recognize that non-budgetary factors may play a role.  A student’s incentive to drop out or stay in school is based partly on his perception of the job market.  One study, "The Impact of Local Labor Market Conditions On the Demand for Education: Evidence from Indian Casinos" by William Evans and Wooyoung Kim, found a direct relationship between local economic conditions and high school dropout rates on American Indian reservations.  In an older study, "Labor Market Incentives to Stay in School," Judith Stallmann et al concluded that an increase in the percentage of employment in managerial occupations reduced the local dropout rate and substantially increased the percentage of high school students who continue their education as expected. The percentage of employment in service occupations, on the other hand, was associated with an increase in the dropout rate.

In addition, the ability of a student to graduate may be tied to the rigor (or lack thereof) of academic coursework.  The high community college remediation rate, for example, suggests that many students graduate from high school without basic reading and math skills.  I have highlighted these remediation rates several times, most recently in a December 2012 blog post.  For the 2011-12 school year, the overall remediation rate remained at 65 percent for students enrolling at a North Carolina community college immediately after graduation.

Finally, there is evidence that school choice programs may increase graduation rates for participating students.  For example, in "Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High Schools of Choice," MDRC researchers Howard S. Bloom and Rebecca Unterman found that the graduation rates of choice students from low-income and/or minority households were more likely to be higher than their non-choice counterparts.

By no means is the science settled.  That is why it is important that North Carolinians in general, and the media in particular, remain skeptical of simplistic explanations of graduation rate increases or decreases, particularly when those explanations come from the headquarters of the Democrat and Republican parties.

Facts and Stats

Cohort Graduation Rates, 2006-2012


Four-year Cohort Graduation Rate

Five-year Cohort Graduation Rate






















Education Acronym of the Week

OECD — Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

Quote of the Week

"In Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom, more than 90% of people are expected to graduate from upper secondary school during their lifetime."

– Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators," p. 44.

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