Improving Meaningful High School Graduation: Progress, Challenges, and Solutions from Detroit

The Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE) has been working in the Detroit area for five years with multiple partners committed to improving high school graduation rates.  In our study of graduation rates and student academic outcomes, we analyzed school performance data from 2010 to 2015 representing over 90,000 K-12 students and survey data from approximately 32,500 4th -12th grade students from 2013 to 2015.  We also reviewed results of our own and our partners’ efforts to strengthen graduation rates in Detroit area schools.

What have we learned?

Progress Has Been Made

Since 2010, graduation rates are up across Detroit. 

Challenges Remain

Despite the overall increases in graduation rates:

  1. high school academic performance remains consistently weak across public and charter schools;
  2. the most recent average graduation rates of approximately 77% for public and charter high schools in Detroit is still unacceptable, with over 1,300 out of approximately 5,600 students in each freshman class not finishing school on time;
  3. high schools (public and charter) with strong graduation rates benefit from disproportionately lower percentages of students with the highest risk of dropping out due to poverty, learning disabilities and limited English proficiency; and,
  4. of the approximately 500 students per year due to graduate from alternative schools in Detroit, less than one out of five graduate.

Over 75% of students coming to Detroit high schools are underprepared in English and over 90% are underprepared in math.

High school students report low levels of quality instruction in their English and Math classrooms. Across Detroit, student survey results from 41 public and charter schools that serve high school students revealed only four schools who were considered Strong or Very Strong on English instruction, and only two schools rated Strong or Very Strong on math instruction.

For too many schools, poor data infrastructure and insufficient supports for educators’ use of data impede efforts to improve meaningful graduation rates.

For many students, their reports of personal safety in and around school and the effective presence of caring and competent adults in their lives are not sufficient for them to focus on academic success.  

Solutions Exist

Each of these challenges is formidable but all are surmountable in our view.  We propose five, high-level solutions, each of which we will pursue in more depth in subsequent articles.  These solutions can be undertaken sequentially or simultaneously, by entire systems or by coalitions of willing schools and educators across systems.  They can be financed by public, private or hybrid funding sources. 

  • Invest in an intensive, cross-system and sustained focus on preparing middle school students for high school work in English and Math.
  • Retool high school curriculum and instruction around more engaging content and more rigorous and engaging approaches to pedagogy.
  • Ensure educators have access to a rich data infrastructure and supports to use these data effectively.
  • Prioritize and then implement proven strategies for high schools to hold on to and reclaim their students: early warning systems, small schools and small learning communities (within larger schools), credit recovery programs, adult advocates and mentors, individualized graduation and career plans, drop-out reclamation and positive peer connections.
  • Identify and empower school and community supports for improving student safety inside, outside and on the way to school; and student access to caring and supportive adults inside and outside school.
  • Strengthen supports for schools with high concentrations of students with learning challenges (including alternative schools).
  •  Where possible. rebalance concentration of these students across high schools.

Preparation and Readiness Are Required

IRRE’s experience in Detroit and other urban communities suggests that successful implementation of these solutions requires five conditions:  

  • consensus among educational leaders and external partners that one or more of these solutions is urgently needed and can happen in their communities;
  • readiness to invest the political and financial resources needed to launch the solution(s) with integrity;
  • commitment to monitor implementation and outcomes and make mid-course corrections;
  • access to and use of the best knowledge available on how to implement these solutions; and
  • an intense and sustained focus on the adopted solution(s) by the inside and outside partners in the work.   

Follow us on Twitter (@InstResReform) and Facebook to learn more about how these solutions and conditions for success can be implemented in your community.

We are grateful to the Skillman and GM Foundations, United Way of Southeast Michigan and our other education partners in Michigan and nationally for the opportunity to learn about the many factors affecting students’ and educators’ success. The challenges identified and solutions proposed in this article are IRRE’s alone, not necessarily those of our partners.