This week, the Lawrence school board and the Kansas State Board of Education will discuss graduation rates and other statistics that are indicators about how well schools are performing. There are troubling signs in those numbers, especially those that point to wide disparities between racial and economic classes.
But here's some good news: Over the past two-plus decades, the United States as a whole has made huge strides in raising educational attainment rates in almost every part of the country. The U.S. is more highly educated today than it was a generation ago. Portions of the Deep South and Appalachia, unfortunately, remain outliers.
These "heat maps" from the Census Bureau show that in nearly every other part of the country, including Kansas, the number of adults with at least a high school diploma or equivalent has grown dramatically. The darker the color, the higher the percentage of graduates. The light yellow that dominates the 1990 map indicates less than 75 percent; the darkest brown in the 2012 map indicate more than 95 percent.
Statewide in Kansas, it's gone from 81.3 percent in 1990 to 89.7 percent in 2012. In Douglas County, which traditionally has a higher rate of educational attainment overall, for obvious reasons, the proportion has risen from an estimated 88.8 percent to 91.3 percent.
You can zoom in or out for more detailed numbers at the Census Bureau website.
Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker offered a few theories about this during a conversation last week. The first was that it indicates how much more important a high school diploma is today than it was a generation ago.
Remember, the maps are based on census counts of people age 25. The 1990 map, therefore, is counting people who should have been on track to graduate in 1983 or earlier when "not everyone was expected to graduate from high school – the stakes weren't nearly as high."
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was still possible for someone to get a blue collar job – or at least a minimum wage job with chances for advancement – without a diploma, although it was still harder. That simply isn't the case anymore, and DeBacker said social norms have changed with the new economy.
"We've changed our message since 1990," she said. "A high school diploma is absolutely essential to opening any doors in employment, let alone postsecondary ed."
Another factor was No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal law that most people identify with mandates for standards-based testing in reading and math.
But another part of NCLB that received much less attention was the mandate that states and individual school districts raise their graduation rates. It was one of the requirements for making Adequate Yearly Progress – and thus qualifying for federal education money. And it remains a requirement under the waivers that Kansas and other states have received since 2011.
"I think you can say that had an impact on it because it was one of the requirements of high schools," DeBacker said. "It was a requirement of states to set a level and hold states accountable."