March 29, 2005
By Jay P. Greene
Cleveland's high school graduation rate appears to have improved considerably over the last several years. According to the school district, Cleveland had a graduation rate of 34 percent for the class of 2000, which spiked to 50 percent for the class of 2004.
An abysmally high percentage of Cleveland's students still fail to graduate high school, but the progress the district has made in such a short time is truly remarkable.
When a Plain Dealer reporter asked me about the increase earlier this month, I said the numbers should be treated "with some healthy skepticism." I hadn't heard of a district making such rapid improvement in graduation rates. Turning around educational results like a low graduation rate is usually like turning around a super-tanker. Change is normally gradual and halting if it happens at all.
But I've updated my estimate for Cleveland's graduation rate, and found, I'm embarrassed to admit, that my skepticism was unwarranted. There does appear to be a large gain in graduation rates in recent years. According to my method of independently estimating graduation rates, Cleveland went from a 28 percent graduation rate for the class of 1998 to a 29 percent rate in 2000 and then jumped to 45 percent in 2002, the most recent year for which I can compute results. The improvement appears to be real.
How did Cleveland schools make such progress? There are a few likely explanations.
First, Cleveland began at such a low point that rapid improvement might have been somewhat easier. In 1998, Cleveland had the lowest graduation rate by far among large school districts nationwide. Making any effort on graduation rates may have made a big difference.
Second, Cleveland is home to a significant voucher program that may have placed pressure on the district to improve its quality. Any gain in educational quality, even in earlier grades, should translate into higher graduation rates over time. When students are given higher skills they have the ability to benefit more by staying in high school, while a high school student entirely lacking in skills gets little out of sticking around in a school that does not help him.
Third, the state takeover of Cleveland's schools may have been exactly the shock the district needed to turn itself around. Breaking up old, dysfunctional routines may be a pre-requisite for other serious reform.
Whatever Cleveland schools are doing right, let's hope they keep on doing it. Even with a 50 percent graduation rate the city ranks near the bottom among large districts nationwide and is certainly well below our hopes for what schools and their students should accomplish. But the district appears to be making progress and should be commended for it.
Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office.
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