America and Tennessee are making progress in meeting the dropout challenge. After a decade of gloomy reports showing the high number of high school dropouts and the negative consequences to individuals, society, and the economy, the tide is starting to turn.
Last week, my organization, Civic Enterprises, released a report showing that the nation has made important gains across many parts of the country. The number of students attending "dropout factory" high schools — those schools graduating 60 percent or less of their students — declined by 400,000 nationally between 2002 and 2008. The number of these high schools across America also declined, from a high of 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008. This 13 percent reduction is significant given that these low-performing schools produce half the country's dropouts every year.
Tennessee led the nation in this progress. Between 2002 and 2008, the state's high school graduation rate increased by 15 percentage points — the largest gain in the nation — from 60 percent to 75 percent. Additionally, the number of dropout factories decreased from 58 to 34. Overall, nearly 12,000 more students earned diplomas in Tennessee in 2008 than did so in 2002. Strong state leadership, multi-sector collaboration, and an emphasis on improving and refining statewide supports to improve schools and student outcomes enabled the state to make progress in meeting its educational goals.
In Memphis, the largest district in the state, important progress also has been made. Over the last few years, the graduation rate in Memphis has increased from the low 50s to 62 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In Memphis, 86 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged. This means that the city serves three times more economically disadvantaged students than the rest of the state. Given the fact that in the increasingly competitive global economy, a high school diploma is a pre-requisite to escape poverty, it is clear that this progress is something that should be celebrated.
As a Tennessee native and a product of Memphis City Schools, I am proud of the progress the city has made.
Last year, the U.S. secretary of education said he was confident that "Memphis is poised to go to the next level. ... I'm just so hopeful that change can happen here." The seeds of change are already being planted. Earlier this year, Tennessee was one of only two states to receive a first round Race to the Top grant. Last fall, Memphis City Schools received a $90 million grant from the Gates Foundation to improve teacher effectiveness. At the state level, every department's funding level was cut so that K-12 education's funding levels could remain intact.
Beyond money, Memphis benefits from having the oldest database to evaluate teacher progress in the nation. And the city benefits from a united network of business, community, and faith-based leaders who are capable of bringing the community together to advance these reforms quickly and efficiently. Additionally, there are activities under way to ensure that Memphis can do more with the resources we have. The district has bold plans to continue recruiting and training highly effective teachers, raise standards and develop individual learning plans for every student to help them reach their goals, implement a robust online professional development system, and develop a comprehensive school turnaround strategy.
We cannot deny that the challenges that remain for Memphis City Schools are real. Although the district outperforms districts with similar challenges, like Detroit, Atlanta, and Miami, too many students fail to graduate from high school on time. Of those graduates, too few are prepared for the rigors of college and the workforce.
We must remember that communities and states with the greatest gains, including our own state, show there are no magic bullets that drive success. Rather, it is a combination of strong leadership, high expectations, multi-sector collaboration, commitment to innovation and change, support and technical assistance for research-based solutions, and good data to hold stakeholders accountable for progress. Though Memphis has all of these components, it will take hard work, determination, and effective targeting of resources. The city — from the central office to the classroom and from the boardroom and the church pew — is beginning to prove that it is up to the challenge.
Laura A. Moore, a Memphis native and graduate of the Memphis City Schools system, is project and policy manager of Civic Enterprises. She is co-author of Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic.