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In 2006, a group of dedicated leaders, organizations and communities set an ambitious goal for our educators: Achieve a 90% national high school graduation rate by the Class of 2020. This influential group would eventually become known as the GradNation campaign, a large and growing movement committed to graduating more high school students and preparing all students for success.

Then, three years later, the campaign's goal actually seemed attainable. Our nation reached a historic 80% graduation rate in 2012, hit a record high of 81.4% in 2013 and remains on pace to meet this goal, informs GradNation's "Executive Brief: Overview of 2012-2013 High School Graduation Rates."1,2

Although the majority of states are increasing their rates by at least 1%, "10 states gained less than one percentage point or lost ground over the past three years," according to the Executive Brief. For these states with low graduation rates - and even states with proven improvements - progress continues to be a significant challenge across the board.

With seven years left to hit the 90% benchmark, states and institutions must implement changes to improve educational outcomes at our nation's most challenged schools. Here are three ways secondary schools can help graduate more of our nation's youth:

Set High Expectations

By setting high expectations for students, educators provide the challenge and inspiration necessary for a student to work at his or her highest level of performance. Among all the components of support and success (including environment, personal work habits, attitude and even chance), high expectations stand out as the central factor, according to the paper "Setting Realistically High Academic Standards and Expectations" published by the University of South Carolina Aiken.3

Explicitly state expectations and students will respond by believing in themselves and recognizing that they do indeed have the capabilities to accomplish what's expected of them. Conversely, by setting low expectations, educators (and parents) show that they don't believe in their students or in the ability of their students to be high achievers. Many of these students become apathetic and resign themselves to failure. One way to establish high expectations is to design academic programming based on the following:

  • High standards set by the educational community
  • Employer expectations of a qualified workforce
  • Successful attributes demonstrated by high-achieving high school graduates

Encourage Accountability

Teaching students to take responsibility and ownership of their education can improve student success. For example, Suzanne Lacey, superintendent of Talladega County Schools, largely emphasizes "project-based learning" -- an instructional strategy that promotes learning by working on projects, reports U.S. News & World Reports's blog High School Notes.4 Students develop a vested interest in their projects. The project becomes the student's responsibility, and they own the experience. As a result, attendance rates increased as disciplinary rates decreased.

Create a culture of accountability with these strategies:5

  • Motivate students by linking a valuable outcome (e.g. grades, graduation, a well-paying job) to completing coursework or studying for an exam
  • Initiate peer-to-peer interactive learning in which students have to collaborate as a team or share their thoughts with other students
  • Place value and relevance on assignments and studying to help students prioritize their academic coursework
  • Reinforce the connection between the high school coursework and future personal, academic and professional goals
  • Improve student engagement by changing the classroom dynamic and investing students in the learning process; for example, project-based learning or shifting the task of "asking questions" away from the instructor and onto the students during a lecture6

Provide Learning Alternatives

Flexibility and personalized learning can help keep high school students committed to their coursework and engaged in the learning environment. A blended educational model combines online, technology-based learning with face-to-face instruction to effectively produce better student outcomes. In a 2010 analysis on online learning studies called the "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning," the U.S. Department of Education concluded that "blended instruction has been more effective."7 The combination of learning elements, such as additional learning time, diverse materials, technology, and opportunities for collaboration, produced learning advantages.

Blended learning continues to be a trending educational tool gaining permanence in classrooms. Students receive independent, individualized learning experiences. Educators can expand their teaching methodologies from the classroom environment to the digital environment to effectively reach a wider range of students.

Reserve the classroom for collaborative and interactive hands-on activities and projects. Use a learning management system (LMS) for students to complete assignments and take quizzes. Students can also utilize cutting-edge online tools, learn time management skills and rapidly receive feedback. As a learning alternative, a blended strategy can be implemented to meet the needs of all students, ensuring they stay on track to graduate.


Recommended for You: High School Graduation Rate on the Rise

Resources(1) Buliding A Grad Nation Executive Brief (2) GradNation (3) Setting Realistically High Academic Standards and Expectations (4) 3 Turnaround Tips for High Schools with Low Graduation Rates (5) Eberly Center: Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation - Students Lack Interest or Motivation (6) Student Engagement as Accountability: "Our Goal is for Our Students to Own Their Learning" (7) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning