Arizona graduation rate dropping as others jump ahead
Arizona's high school graduation rate not only lags much of the rest of the nation, but is actually falling as other states are seeing more students awarded diplomas, a new report says.
"We understand very clearly that's one of the crises that TUSD is struggling with," said incoming superintendent John Pedicone.
More than half of the states — 29 in total — increased high school graduation rates. Eighteen states had rates that remained essentially the same, and three — Arizona, Nevada, and Utah — experienced noticeable declines in their graduation rates.
The national graduation rate increased to 75 percent in 2008, up from 72 percent in 2001.
But Arizona's graduation rate dropped by 4 percent from 2002 to 2008, with 70.7 percent receiving diplomas, the report said. That's a net drop of nearly 3,500 high school graduates annually.
Utah and Nevada also saw large drops in graduates, with Utah falling just over 6 points to a 74.3 percent rate. Nevada lost 20.6 percent, and now graduates just 51.3 percent of its incoming freshman.
TUSD grad rates fall
Locally, the Tucson Unified School District graduated 82.5 percent of its students after 5 years in 2010, down from 89 percent in 2008. In 2006, the district graduated nearly 88 percent of students after 5 years, according to data provided by the district.
"We understand very clearly that's one of the crises that TUSD is struggling with," said John Pedicone, the incoming superintendent of Tucson's largest school district. "There are a lot of reasons, and a lot of them sound like excuses."
Budget cuts to K-12 education instituted by the legislature hamper the district's ability to increase graduation rates, Pedicone said.
"We're set up for the most difficult couple of years (in a long time)," he said. "We're cut $800 million (statewide); that'll mean several million dollars in TUSD. We're desperate to do more with less."
"We'll have to reduce some of what we offer. I don't know what that looks like in this district," said Pedicone, who will officially begin his duties in January, after consulting for TUSD in December.
"We need to keep it as far from the classroom as possible," he said.
Pedicone is the former superintendent of the Flowing Wells School District. He served in the district for 22 years. He is replacing Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, who left TUSD for a position in Colorado, citing state budget cuts for her departure less than two years into her tenure.
Pedicone has said he'll head up the district for three to five years.
Besides a slashed budget, other changes in the educations system, including No Child Left Behind and Arizona's high-stakes AIMS test "have an impact on underserved populations," Pedicone said.
"We need to create a system where we intervene early," he said. "There needs to be a systemic approach to prepare students" for more challenging work. "The students need a support system where less wealthy kids have resources."
"Students in wealthy districts do better, not because those students are smarter — quite the contrary," Pedicone said. "They have the ability to engage in enriching activities."
Declining enrollment due to neighborhood shifts and competition from charter schools has also challenged TUSD, he said.
"The district gets really terrible press — some justifiable, some not," he said. "We need to do a much better job letting the public know about the remarkable things going on" to continue to attract students.
The district, which has 53,000 students, closed nine under-enrolled schools to save money last year.
"I'm really in favor of high expectations and demands. We need to keep raising the bar," Pedicone said. "We need resources to do that."
'Building a Grad Nation'
The 88-page report "Building a Grad Nation" report was published by America's Promise Alliance, a nonprofit group founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"The United States is turning a corner in meeting the high school dropout epidemic," Powell wrote in a letter introducing the report.
The group announced Tuesday a "Civic Marshall Plan" to boost the number of high school graduates:
Earlier this year, President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for 90 percent of U.S. students to graduate from high school and complete at least one year of post-secondary education or training by 2020. We share that national goal, but the current rate of progress is too slow. To reach these national goals, America needs to increase its national graduation rate an average of 1.5 percentage points per year over the next decade.
The plan calls for a broad-based effort to strengthen the public education system, including increasing reading proficiency by the 4th grade, focusing on middle school student engagement, boosting parent involvement and better teacher training and incentives.
Tennessee and New York led the country in boosting graduation rates, with breakthrough gains of 15 and 10 points. Ten other states had gains ranging from 4 to 7 percent. These gains were in states that had graduation rates in 2002 that both above and below the national rate, indicating that improvement is possible regardless of starting point, the report said.
“America still faces a dropout crisis, but this report shows why there is reason to be hopeful,” said Marguerite Kondracke, CEO of America's Promise Alliance.
The report also cited a significant decline in the number of "dropout factories" — schools that graduate fewer than 60 percent of their students. The number of such high schools fell by 13 percent – from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008. These schools account for half of all high school dropouts each year.
“Public schools are showing improvement thanks to reforms and other efforts that have been put in place, but we need to dramatically increase the pace of progress,” said Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education. “No principal, school board, teachers’ union or mayor can resolve a community’s dropout crisis alone. It takes everyone working together to make progress every year and build on success.”
The rate of increase in graduation rates over the last 10 years — 3 percent — is too slow to reach the national goal of having 90 percent of students obtain a diploma and receive at least one year of postsecondary schooling or training by 2020.
Over the next decade, the nation will need to accelerate its progress in boosting high school graduation rates fivefold from the rates achieved through 2008, the report said.
Disclosure: Dylan Smith’s wife is a teacher in the Tucson Unified School District.