Historic Milestones Present Opportunities and Challenges in Education

As the school year gets into full swing, it’s worth reflecting on a couple of historic milestones that make this year unique.

For the first time in our nation’s history, America’s public school population is majority-minority, according to this Department’s projections. Actual counts will come after a year or more, but we estimate that as of this month, non-white students make up 50.2 percent of all public school students.

Secretary Duncan announced this shift in April during a speech to the Grad Nation Summit, noting the growing imperative to serve all students better.

“All — all — of America’s children are our children,” he said. “When we think about preparing our young people today for the possibilities of tomorrow — which increasingly means preparing them for some form of college — then that’s about all our kids. This is about both equity and excellence. And I believe it’s going to take a sea change in our classrooms to get there.”

Fortunately, there are signs that change is under way, as shown in another vital statistic: the highest high school graduation rate in America’s history – 80 percent. Graduation rate increases between just 2008 and 2012 helped an additional 100,000 Latino students and an additional 40,000 African-American students to graduate from high school.

“As a country, we owe a debt of gratitude to the teachers, administrators, and families whose hard work made [this] achievement possible,” Secretary Duncan said.

ED used the cohort graduation rate, the most accurate measure of high school graduation rates, to calculate the 80 percent. First reported on the state level in 2012, the cohort rate is a common metric for states, districts, and schools to promote greater transparency and accountability. The measure also accounts for students who drop out, or who don’t earn a regular high school diploma.

But Duncan also said that success rates for some students, including those of color, must improve. Hispanic and African-American students graduated at lower rates than their peers – 76 and 68 percent, respectively.

We continue our work to address these prevailing achievement and opportunity gaps today. To level the playing field, we will continue to promote equitable access to high-quality preschool, strong teachers, and advanced coursework; to speak out against unfair disciplinary practices; and to ensure students in all zip codes have access to advanced technology.

Meredith Bajgier is a member of the Communications Development Team in the Office of Communications and Outreach.