D.C. Schools Post the Lowest High School Graduation Rate In The Nation

Washington, D.C. had the worst high school graduation rate in the country in 2011 — down roughly 20 percent from just two years ago. The drop appears partially the result of a new (and better) accounting system that tracks actual students rather than allowing a ridiculous calculation method that tended to inflate numbers. Nevada had the lowest graduation rate of any state (62 percent) and D.C. did worse than Native American reservations (61 percent). The best state was Iowa with 88 percent followed by Vermont and Wisconsin (both at 87 percent).


The rate in Washington, D.C. for 2009-2010 was 76 percent rate. The current figure is a disgrace and shows a continuing failure of the school system with 71,284 students in 191 schools. The district received $98.3 million dollars in federal funding during 2011.

With over four out of ten students not graduating on time in D.C., the school system has long been criticized for poor teacher quality and management. In comparison to the 58 percent rate, Fairfax (the affluent suburb next door has an almost 92 percent graduation rate). Clearly the comparison with Fairfax must taken into account an obvious difference in the extreme level of poverty and violence that faces the D.C. school system. This is no easy task when the schools must deal with crippling socio-economic problems. However, the D.C. schools are well behind other school systems facing similar challenges.

In 2008, the federal government required that states and D.C. stop using a questionable system where they simply divided the number of students receiving diplomas by the number of those who started ninth grade four years earlier. That calculation inflated the numbers of graduates. Now they must track individual students.

As a long supporter of public schools, I find these figures incredibly depressing. Leslie and I have kept our kids in public schools because we are strong believers in the role of public schools in our society as well as the more pluralistic environment for learning. These schools are the bedrock for our society and their decline does not bode well for our future. The over 40 percent of kids not graduating are set on a path that will limit their opportunities and personal growth as adults. It is not only tragic for them but tragic for society.

Frankly it also shows a continuing failure of the D.C. government to meet this basic obligation. D.C. politicians tend to blame Congress for its ills despite the fact that the District (with considerable federal support) spends the most of any school system in the nation: $18,667 per pupil. Yet, it produces the worst results of any system. SAT reading scores are at a four decade low in D.C. That is not just a factor of socio-economics as other major cities have shown. It is a failure of leadership and competence.

Source: Washington Post

48 thoughts on “D.C. Schools Post the Lowest High School Graduation Rate In The Nation”

  1. Well perhaps it’s time to realize that public schools are dominated by public sector unions that make it impossible to fire bad teachers, all have the same indoctrination policy for every kid and class sizes are to high. Individual states could have public school systems although I would argue it wouldn’t improve things much, but the federal beauracracy is stifling all public schools. Without big labour to protect poor teachers, and the federal spigot siphoning funds endlessly from productive people, schools would have to shape up and teachers would be more accountable in a more local system. And the nation wide indoctrination policy of the fed is clearly just getting worse, America’s education rank continues to deteriorate. It’s time for more local solutions to these issues, one size clearly does not fit all.

  2. “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” – Thomas Jefferson

  3. nick spinelli 1, November 29, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    If we remain on the specific topic of DC, it may shed some light on the plight of the hundreds of other failing systems …
    ===========================================
    That brings up a good point Nick, the students are not failing, the system is.

  4. Eric, Thanks much for another perspective, even though you’re a hoser. That is said w/o an ounce of malice..just some easy going, international ball busting.

  5. I agree with MikeS that “no one should be expected to climb Mt Everest alone”. However, many can climb Mt Everest with help. Growing up in Canada, I had a state that supported me with the opportunity for high quality education and parents who supported that both in talk and in action.

    I think there are several key differences in the education system in Canada. First and foremost, the schools are funded on a provincial (state) level. All schools, regardless of the economic situation of the location they are in, receive the same amount of funding, the same quality of building, teachers, and books.

    Second, the curriculum emphasizes the traditional – history, geography, science, math. There is little or no politicization of the education system (either from the left or the right). The student at least has the opportunity to leave high school with a well rounded sound education.

    Third, at the University level, access is both affordable and equal. Tuition is heavily subsidized for Canadians and all schools charge very nearly the same – you can afford the highest quality of school you can qualify for – and if you have no money at all, all of your costs will be covered. And access is controlled by the government – you apply to University’s through the government which awards placement based on pretty mathematical basis based on your grades.

    This, however, is necessary but not sufficient. The state can support but not replace the family. I had friends, black and white, who had parents who did not enforce the value of education. Some succeeded on the force of their own initiative but, it is more difficult.

    1. Eric,

      I think you’ve shown the way in what’s needed to change in U.S. education. The problem is of course that the resistance to such an educational system would be tremendous from certain quarters here.
      I really do believe that many powerful people in the U.S. elite don’t want educational equality for all. The difference between here and Canada in so many ways is that most Canadians take a more rational, less political canon type of approach to governance. Here such a system would be railed at as Socialism, even though it makes perfect sense. Education really is an issue of protecting the society, rather than an issue to use as a political football.

  6. If we remain on the specific topic of DC, it may shed some light on the plight of the hundreds of other failing systems. Michelle Rhee has high expectations for students. She is not the maternalistic, “you just try your best honey” type educator. Ms. Rhee is demanding, of herself, teachers, administrators and students. Think back to your best teachers, I’ll bet they were demanding. Rhee shook things up. She fired worthless teachers and gave bonuses to those who produce. She had the full backing of the DC Mayor, Arne Duncan, and our President. However, Rhee is not a politician and got swallowed up in a city that elects the likes of Marion Berry. She made dramatic improvements but didn’t genuflect to those who demand it. She was run out of town after her biggest supporter, the Mayor, was not reelected. Well, the improvements have been flushed down the toilet. Ms. Rhee is a force of her own. She showed how it’s done. But, people who say they’re “all about the kids” showed once again their hypocrisy. We know positive changes can be made. And, we know from DC one of the biggest obstacles is the staus quo, conventional wisdom. It always is.

  7. You get what you prey for:

    As a college professor, I have a special interest in what happened to Iraqi universities under US occupation. The story is not pretty.

    Until the 1990s, Iraq had perhaps the best university system in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein’s regime used oil revenues to underwrite free tuition for Iraqi university students — churning out doctors, scientists, and engineers who joined the country’s burgeoning middle class and anchored development. Although political dissent was strictly off-limits, Iraqi universities were professional, secular institutions that were open to the West, and spaces where male and female, Sunni and Shia mingled. Also the schools pushed hard to educate women [PDF], who constituted 30 percent of Iraqi university faculties by 1991. (This is, incidentally, better than Princeton was doing as late as 2009.) With a reputation for excellence, Iraqi universities attracted many students from surrounding countries — the same countries that are now sheltering the thousands of Iraqi professors who have fled US-occupied Iraq … In just 20 years, then, the Iraqi university system went from being among the best in the Middle East to one of the worst. This extraordinary act of institutional destruction was largely accomplished by American leaders who told us that the US invasion of Iraq would bring modernity, development, and women’s rights. Instead, as political scientist Mark Duffield has observed, it has partly de-modernized that country. In the words of John Tirman, America’s failure to acknowledge the suffering that occupation wreaked in Iraq “is a moral failing as well as a strategic blunder.” Iraq represents a blind spot in our national conversation, one that impedes the cultural growth that stems from a painful recognition of error; and it hobbles the rational evaluation of foreign intervention. Is it too late to look in the mirror?

    (Why The Right Is Anti-Education). As AY said up-thread, the problem is not education, the problem is that our national system does not comprehend the difference between education and indoctrination … on purpose.

    The right is pro-indoctrination but anti-education.

    Today as we blog the intelligentsia who were educated in our system are in Doha, Qatar trying to figure out how to avoid over 100 million deaths by 2030 as the result of the efforts of our civilization, a product of it’s “education.”

  8. Thanks to MikeS, Malisha and Eric for keeping this from becomin solely a “scapegoating” session.

    MikeS gets it down to basics: Don’t expect everybody to climb Mount Everest. My question. How do we change society?

    Malisha presents a success story, but without explaining the reasons. Was it self-selection by the parents and the kids came from those kind of homes with commitment and support. Or other views?

    Eric relates also a success story. Can he compare himself or his area with others and see differences that made a difference.

    Lastly, look at the Chinese. For millenia the only way forward was education. And it is still so, in their eyes.

    A black woman came briefly from her hovel to our hovel once a week to clean. She proudly said she had put three and soon four kids through college. I never got to know her, so the question remains. Why did she succeed?

  9. Excellent post, Malisha, you have real experience with the DC system. Quite a few young men are going into teaching, shano.

  10. A elementary teacher friend of mine said in the old days, when not many professions were open to women- the teaching occupation could get the top 25% of women. But now, with low pay and crumbling school infrastructure the teaching profession has to compromise.

    Not that there are not excellent teachers, very dedicated, but when many women decide against this profession because of these sacrifices something needs to change.
    She has always taught at private schools in New England, one solution for her chosen career.

  11. Mike Spindell – while I agree with you that poverty is incredibly demoralizing, education is the way out. Education built both Canada and the United States. My parents both came from incredibly poor families but, they had a public education system that was top notch – and their parents supported and emphasized the importance of that education as their way out.

    As a result, they both became professionals and did better than their parents. I also had an excellent public education – with parents who emphasized its importance, and I did better than my parents.

    Top quality, practical education is the single best thing we can do to help folks succeed.

    1. Eric,

      Education is no doubt important so we really don’t disagree. My father dropped out of school in the 9th grade and spent time in prison. My mother may or not have finished high school. but both my parents were avid readers. They died when I was 18 and I had to support myself, by working my way through college with a 30 hour per week job. I have a masters degree from an Ivy League School and 5 years post masters training. In my modest way I have been successful, but here’s the kicker.

      I was six foot tall, blond, blue eyed, had a great speaking voice, high IQ and in my youth good looking. My father had built up a massive vocabulary doing things like Reader’s Digest’s “How too Increase your Word Power” and I followed his lead. There was a library of great books handed down to me by my parents and big brother. I went to a high School that has since become one of the top rated public high schools in the country. So while their death left me with nothing financially, my family background had prepared me for success in society. I mention the seemingly external characteristics because these are all things that aid one in achieving success. This is not to say that I don’t think highly of myself, only that I realize that none of us are really “self made” and some of us have built-in advantages extrinsic to our talent to succeed educationally.

      Now there are may stories in our country’s history where people of color have risen from the absolute depths of poverty to astoundingly great heights. The problem is that people of color ad even white people from certain regions have systemic problems that hold them back in life and it takes an absolutely extraordinary individual to overcome them. I’m pretty talented, but I know full well I’m not extraordinary to that degree and have benefited by the circumstances of my birth.

  12. There was a fabulous Montessori school-within-a-school program in Merritt Extended Elementary School in DC (poorest section of town) in 2001 and that program single-handedly brought up the school’s testing average so well that when George W Bush was looking for a photo-op to promote “No Child Left Behind,” he went there to show that he cared about little Black kids and he actually patted some heads for the camera and Laura read somebody a book (no, not about a goat). And then there was a play presented in that school in 2001 about the Dred Scott case. Roaring success. NO PUBLIC MONEY went into the production. Three teachers and three volunteers (including my son) did it on their own pocket change including props and costumes (I still own Justice Taney’s gavel). The kids in the play went on to get full scholarships to the best private schools in town, even the kid who played Dred Scott, whose BOTH PARENTS were incarcerated for drug crimes. They all graduated. They all succeeded. And then the city closed down that school.

    The whole system needs to be upgraded. It is not the kids’ faults; it is not their families’ faults; it is our collective fault.

    DC needs to be a state and it needs respect and it needs help. It is a national disgrace that we are not providing it.

  13. It is amazing that people are surprised and shocked that NCLB has failed to produce well rounded students coming out DC schools. However, the reasons for drop out rates are usually related to economics and criminal activities, like gangs. It is not a liberal issue or a union teacher problem. If families are in a shambles and parents are out of work, it should not surprise anyone that the drop out rate would increase.

  14. How easily some of the comments are made by people unable to understand that a failing education is but a symptom of the deeper underlying problems, inequality, poverty, racism and the lack of hope it breeds. How many here have actually spent years meeting with and going into the homes of people who are poor, as I have? Do you really doubt that educational success levels directly correlate with the poverty of the child? This society so demonizes those who are impoverished that a majority of people blame their lack of social standing on the victims, as some comments above imply.

    The desegregation of schools merely began with Brown vs. Board of Ed in 1954. The truth is that for the most part the concept of desegregation never happened and in North, South, East and West throughout this country our schools systems remain segregated in the main. The purpose of desegregation efforts themselves weren’t because Black people were so hungry to be with White people for edification purposes, but because “separate but equal” was a slogan, not a reality. It was felt that when schools were integrated, then money would get spent equally. It hasn’t worked out that way.

    Now some would rapidly reply to the above by stating that since Washington D.C. spends the highest per capita on education in the country, money is not the root of the problem and they would be right, for the wrong reasons. Poverty itself breeds a lack of education for those who are poor. This is true by the way for people of all races. The poverty in Appalachia among Whites causes the same familial problems and educational problems that exists in D.C., yet it is profitable for those engaged in demagoguery, on the Middle, Right and the Left, to ignore this root cause. Poverty breeds hopelessness; violence; children born into unstable situations; a far greater chance of imprisonment; lack of health; decent shelter; and in the end the ingrained belief that since things will ever get better the hell with it all. Poverty degrades nobility of spirit, rather than enhancing it. If you live in a man-made “jungle”, the odds of escaping it are minimal.

    Of course someone, a proponent of American mythology no doubt, will point to those who have lifted themselves out of poverty by their own “bootstraps” and I would agree that a percentage of people do. However, at best that is a percentage that hovers around ten percent, which doesn’t make it good odds.

    This is especially true because there is a history of people who were not impoverished but working class, who have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. I even know a few. The difference is that even if their family was of very modest means that changed circumstance gave them hope and impetus to aspire beyond the station of their birth. However, I think the statistics would show that from even these working class families, especially in the America of today, the percentage of children escaping the conditions of their birth, while improved are not high.

    While education is an answer to the inequality of opportunity in this country, it is not an answer supplied by nostrums and techniques. Look beyond the system to the reality of the American landscape without pre-judgment and you will see that the solutions are far more complex, therefore daunting, than just trying to fix broken school systems.

  15. “Public Education” has little to do with education. “Public Education” is basically government training – specifically obedience training – something you do to dogs and seals and teachers and doctors, etc. The purpose of “Public Education” is to make sure that kids never learn to think critically and never grow up. Because people who think are likely to cause big trouble. That’s the last thing that governments and corporations want. They want people trained to bow down and worship governments and corporations and buy into their BS. Actually, “Public Education” has been extremely successful training.

    Fortunately, some how, some people learn to think despite “Public Education” without landing in jail and actually getting a real education.

  16. Eric:

    it is not the entire fault of the unions and the far left. No child left behind, the standard of learning testing and other dictates by both conservative and liberal politicians at the state and federal level have caused incalculable harm.

    Education should be administered locally with no outside mandates.

  17. I feel very blessed that I am able to afford private school (Montessori) for my child. I wish the unions and far left liberals had less power over the schools here. I grew up in Canada where I learned history, geography, science, and math. Each and every year we were required to take these courses. Now, they take “family budgeting” and “diversity in a modern society” – things you should learn at home.

    Sadly, this is why we are 17th in the nation. And, as Nick Spinelli points out, Michelle Rhee – and anyone else across the country who has tried to change our pathetic public schools, have been run out of town as “heretics”.

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