When something goes right for the country, we should first thank those who made it possible. And then, enjoy the moment before being overwhelmed again by reports of wars, mud slides, and unemployment.

In April, the U.S. Department of Education announced that the United States recorded its highest ever graduation rate from high school. Eighty percent of those who began secondary school finished with a diploma in 2012, the latest year for which data is available.

That is good news indeed for those youngsters who earned that diploma. Having that piece of paper dramatically increases the odds that they will get a good job. So, congratulations to those high school graduates, their teachers, and their parents.

It is also good news for the country because business is worried that our economic competitiveness is hampered by the workforce’s lack of education and skills. More than a generation ago, the U.S. used to lead the world in education achievement with the highest high school graduation rate and college-going rate. Now, other countries have moved up and surpassed us.

Obviously, we have to try harder. That is what these high school graduates have done.

But, there is a back story that is also important.

We can trust the numbers!

That may sound odd because we should be able to trust what we are told about the schools. Well, that has not always been so.

More than a decade ago, when I headed the Center on Education Policy, we produced reports presenting basic data about American schools that was not commonly known. A friend of mine, a professor at Ohio State University, read one of those reports that used federally-produced statistics on high school completion and warned me against using such data. He had done work for years in that area and knew that the numbers were not accurate.

What he told me was corroborated by research done by Chris Swanson, then at the Urban Institute and now at Education Week. Swanson thoroughly researched, amply documented, and persuasively wrote about how unreliable the numbers were on how many students were completing high school.

At the time, the federal government had various measures of how many people finished high school. The states differed in their ways of calculating this number, and even within states local school districts could count differently.

What a mess! And, how could anyone be sure of what was accurate?

Swanson recommended that the rate of completion of high school be based on how many 9th graders finished the four years of secondary school. That made a great deal of sense since this number was harder to manipulate than some of the other measures. The effort also received crucial support from Jay Greene, then at the Manhattan Institute and now at the University of Arkansas and Bob Balfanz at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University.

The persuasive case they made led to interest from the National Governors’ Association, followed by endorsement from a number of governors. A decisive element was added when U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings followed with a mandate that states had to report their high school data using that definition.

Today, for the first time ever, we can rely on what we are told is the percentage of students graduating from high school. Now, we really know this is good news. It is also a reminder that although local control of education is one of our oldest traditions, at times it is necessary to do things as a country.

So, when something goes right, we should thank the people who made that possible.

Thank you, students, teachers, and parents. And, thank you Chris Swanson and allies, state governors, and Margaret Spellings.


On May 6, 2014, this appeared as a blog by Jack Jennings in the Huffington Post.