High school graduation rates have been going up steadily over the past fifteen years or so--why?
The obvious way to start thinking about that question would be to consider what's happened in schools. That's one thing done by the Ed. School professor who's been studying the issue, Richard Murnane:
"The economist, a professor at Harvard’s education school, speculates
that some high school students dropped out when high schools raised
standards for graduation because they realized they wouldn’t get over
"The recent improvement, he speculates, may be the welcome byproduct
of a upturn in math and reading skills, as measured by test scores,
among minorities in the years before the students reach ninth grade."
Nevertheless, schools are probably the wrong place to look to explain changes in the graduation rate, since schools are not the main driver of their own success. As Professor Murnane knows (he has himself done good work on the educational effects of changes in economic inequality), you'd be more likely to figure out why graduation rates are rising if you considered social factors, like a changing job market, changing family composition, or environmental clean-up or degradation.
As it happens, one out-of-school factor I saw mentioned was in a blog post that wondered whether the phase-out of leaded gasoline and the steep drop of atmospheric lead, which several scholars have credited with the steep drop in crime over the past twenty years, could also have contributed to the increase in graduation rates.
Why we need Graduate Schools of Educational Public Health
The leaded gasoline link is debatable and will no doubt be picked up by scholarly researchers who have more time and resources than bloggers do; perhaps Professor Murnane himself will look into it. Unfortunately, Professor Murnane is an anomaly. Almost all of the research being done at the GSE seems to be focused on in-school factors. There are research projects on "leadership", on educational policy, on data, on "educational accountability", on child development, on teacher training, on teaching math, and so on. Looking at the GSE's list of research projects is somewhat depressing, because none of the projects are focused on what would really make a difference in educational outcomes--that is, out of school factors like poverty, libraries, health, nutrition, and equality.
That's why I think we need a new graduate school focused on educational public health. If only Bill Gates would do what the Rockefeller foundation did a hundred years ago, and put his money into something that would make a positive difference in educational outcomes, instead of funding largely irrelevant projects that will serve mainly to disempower teachers.