Why I Wear 80

Graduation CapsWhen I take the court tonight for the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game, I’ll be wearing a number that signifies some great news – thanks to the hard work of our nation’s students, parents, and educators.

The number I’ll wear – 80 – is rarely seen on a basketball jersey – but represents a record in education.

That number – 80 percent — is the newly announced high school graduation rate, the highest in American history. Never before have 4 out of 5 American students completed high school. We have further to go, but this is a moment to celebrate the hard work of our educators.

Often in sports, but rarely in education, do you hear about the heroes whose skill, hard work, creativity and tenacity resulted in an achievement the whole country should know about. We should all take heart from the passionate, caring work being done in classrooms, schools, and communities across the country.

Who’s to credit for this progress? Here, as elsewhere, you can be sure that the best ideas come from outside Washington, D.C. The best ideas come from teachers, principals, superintendents, and other educators who are determined to see their students succeed.

These ideas come from communities like Seattle, Wash., where Grover Cleveland High School was struggling just a few years ago. But Cleveland’s educators and students wouldn’t let the school fail.

photolockerWith federal grant funds and other reform dollars, Cleveland transformed from a traditional neighborhood high school to one that emphasized project-based learning, connected students with mentors in the surrounding community, and offered internships in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. School leaders and staff met every week and included parents, employers and other partners in designing a new approach to learning.

Cleveland seized the opportunity to innovate, and it worked. The school’s four-year-graduation rate rose from 60.5% in 2011 to 75% in 2013.  And in 2013, Cleveland was named a Washington State School of Distinction.

Elsewhere, in Tennessee and the District of Columbia, state and local leaders looked honestly at student underperformance – and did something about it. They raised standards, strengthened classroom instruction, and revamped systems for teacher support and evaluation.

At Cleveland – and at schools in states from Ohio to Texas – change was, and is, hard. It takes tenacity, compassion, and courage from both students and educators.

The 80 percent number – the graduation rate for the class of 2011* — represents not only the collective progress we’ve made as a nation, but individually as communities, schools, students, and families.

But I see 80 percent as a starting point. We have so much further to go – for the one in five students who don’t graduate; for the many who graduate less than fully prepared for college; and for the groups of students that, despite recent progress, are achieving and graduating at lower rates. The potential of American students is limitless – it’s on our schools, families and communities to help them achieve at higher levels.

All students should have the opportunity to achieve in high school and thrive in whatever career or college they pursue. We owe 100 percent of our students that chance.

Today, I’ll celebrate where we are, and recognize where we need to go.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

*2010-2011 Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate


  1. The graduation rate is going up; however, how do you make sure the graduation rate is not going up because the standards for graduation have been lowered?

    Plus, the country is investing a lot of money to prevent drop outs–is the nation directly at least comparable amounts of money toward making sure the students who are working at school can soar?

    • Actually, the Common Core has raised standards for most of the country so this is the result of a lot of dedication and hard work by teachers, administrators and students. It is a commitment to educating EVERY student. Many schools offer accelerated programs for students who are up for the challenge.

      • Common Core hasn’t been in place long enough for anyone behind it to give it credit for raising graduation rates.

        And you’re right, it *does* raise expectations for many students – particularly those in the early grades who are neurologically NOT yet ready for many of those expectations. I wonder what will happen to the graduation rate in a decade when these children on whom CCSS were imposed with ZERO testing are ready to graduate – assuming they have not dropped out of school after having been labeled as “failures”?

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