Select Page

Last month, President Barack Obama spoke to students and educators at Benjamin Banneker High School, a magnet school in Washington, to speak about the tremendous increase in the high school graduation rate. In 2015, the nation’s high school graduation reached 83.2 percent, a historic high. Obama stated that this achievement was due to the policies of his administration. Some of these efforts of the Obama administration were widely lauded while others were polarizing, but we cannot deny that overall, they have made a big difference.


Over the past four years, graduation rates have increased by 4.2 percent. Furthermore, rates increased 7.6 percent for black students, 8.1 percent for English learners, and 6.1 percent for low-income students. We still have quite a way to go in terms of closing the education gap, but it’s an important step. Kids who graduate high school are less likely to be unemployed, and even if they don’t go on to college, they are still likely to earn more than students who drop out of high school.


Of course, we cannot be sure what exactly brought the progress about, and how much credit goes to Obama. Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise, believes that the increase in graduation rates was due to the accountability efforts of presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. These presidents pushed states to test students with more frequency, and to monitor test scores and school attendance. No Child Left Behind was a law that was largely criticized for narrowing the curriculum down to the information tested on annual math and reading exams. However, it did have one positive effect. More data was collected that allowed educators to monitor how many middle school students showed the risk factors for later dropping out.


Interesting enough, Obama did not mention K-12 funding in his speech, despite the fact that he has a lot to be proud of in that department. The 2009 stimulus bill helped locals school make up for state-level budget cuts, which is important because high per-pupil funding is associated with large increase in graduation rates. It takes years for researchers to figure out whether a specific reform led to change, so we cannot yet say whether the controversial education reform innovation during Obama’s presidency has played a key role in the rise in the graduation rate.


There are many reasons for the high school graduate rate increasing that don’t derive from the public school system. At the turn of the 20th century, attending high school was something for the elite. This changed in the Progressive Era, during which education reformers urged high schools to offer vocational courses and lower level academics. Around 1940, only around half of Americans graduated because many families expected their teengaers to go straight into the workforce. After World War II, the graduation rate rapidly increased, and in 1970, it reached its previous peak of 77 percent.


While it is curious that there was such a long period of time in which the rate remained stable, we are happy to say that the education rate has recently increased tremendously, and while we can’t be sure how much of it is directly attributed to Obama, it’s more than fair that he finds this improvement something to be proud of.