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Education by the numbers: 9 statistics that have made us think differently about America’s schools this academic year

Kevin Mahnken | July 9, 2018

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Even with a perpetual media carnival unfolding around the Trump presidency, and ahead of midterm elections that could result in an even more hectic news environment next year, the events of 2018 have been shaped to an extraordinary degree by America’s K-12 schools.

After a massacre at a Florida high school in February, the national debate over gun safety reached its highest pitch in years. Spring teacher strikes spread from state to state, sending a chill through lawmakers and making school funding a backdrop for the November elections. In multiple swing states, hundreds of teachers have put their names on the ballot. And districts across the country have struggled to track, place, and educate thousands of children either displaced by Hurricane Maria or separated from their parents at the border.

Here are nine key statistics behind those and other major stories of the 2017-18 school year:

59 percent

What It Is: The high school graduation rate in Washington, D.C.

What It Means: A few years ago, that number might not have seemed particularly out of place; a major city district like D.C., plagued by poverty and troubled schools, might reasonably graduate a little over half its high schoolers. But it’s a major decline from 2017, when the graduation rate had reportedly climbed to a record 73 percent after years of progress. Though the official tally won’t be finalized until this fall, after a few hundred more seniors will likely graduate after completing summer coursework, a drop of this magnitude is striking.

The new figure comes after an investigation triggered by a massive scandal at Ballou High School, where many chronically absent seniors were allowed to graduate. The districtwide adjustment is the latest and most dramatic evidence that grade inflation is responsible for at least some of the supposedly remarkable progress in graduation rates over the last decade.


What It Is: The average teacher salary in West Virginia, the lowest of any state that saw strikes during the 2017-18 school year, according to the National Education Association

What It Means: There are varying measures of teacher pay in the United States; depending on whether you count private school teachers, or separate elementary from secondary educators, the pecking order can vary. But clustered at the bottom of the scale, earning far less than the national average of $59,660, are red states like West Virginia, Florida, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Arizona. Forget comparisons to other college graduates — in Oklahoma, you can make more pumping gas than teaching children.

No surprise, then, that a handful of those states saw massive teacher walkouts this spring, with thousands of school employees descending on their state capitals to demand higher wages. Most succeeded in winning raises, and teachers in other states may eye the same tactics in September.

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What It Is: The number of educators running for office in Oklahoma

What It Means: Teachers, newly militant over issues of pay and school funding, aren’t just walking out of their classrooms — hundreds of them, across dozens of states, are running for state or federal office. More than 40 have taken the plunge in Arizona, including the 2016 Teacher of the Year, and at least 28 have declared their candidacies in Kentucky, where one has already toppled the Senate majority leader in a primary.

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Most are running as Democrats, and a good number have sought training through the National Education Association’s See Educators Run seminar. But no matter the state or party, one thing is certain: Next year, more active and retired educators will be crafting education policy across the country.


What It Is: The number states where graduating high school won’t qualify you to attend public college

What It Means: According to an April report from the Center for American Progress, the vast majority of states don’t align their high school graduation standards with admissions standards to their public university systems. In eight states (including Texas, California, Maryland, and Indiana), a student can earn sufficient math credits to gain a diploma but still fall short of requirements for entry into a state university — usually the cheapest and most accessible form of higher education. In a whopping 23 states, foreign language requirements are misaligned.

A wealth of research proves that students who are diverted from typical coursework to remedial classes when they begin college are much less likely to graduate.


What It Is: The number of people killed or injured in school shootings in 2018 to date

What It Means: It means, as Florida gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham has put it, that more people have died in schools this year than in combat zones. Is there really anything more to say?

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What It Is: The number of students who have left Puerto Rico’s public school system since last year’s devastating hurricane

What It Means: To start with, that’s likely a conservative estimate. In the same way that reported fatality figures from Hurricane Maria were later found to be much lower than the true number of dead, it’s likely that the island’s education authorities are still accounting for the full number of pupils displaced by the once-in-a-generation storm. Some 24,000 of those kids are now believed to be studying somewhere on the mainland, most clustering in heavily Hispanic areas like Florida or New York City. Meanwhile, nearly 300 schools have been shuttered on the island, where authorities have already passed laws implemented sweeping changes to the education system.

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33 percent

What It Is: The proportion of 4-year-olds attending state-funded pre-K programs

What It Means: The figure comes from the annual report of the National Institute for Early Education Research, which keeps meticulous track of the enrollment — and resources — of state pre-kindergarten programs. While millions of 3- and 4-year-olds are still absent from any early education, and many more are placed in privately run programs, the percentage enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs has grown enormously: from just 14 percent in 2002 to 33 percent today.

That huge increase has been the result of a concerted effort to get programs off the ground in largely underserved communities. While 13 states lacked any form of publicly funded pre-K 15 years ago, just six do today. In Florida, 77 percent of all 4-year-olds are enrolled in the state’s pre-K program.


What It Is: Progress recorded in American students’ 2017 NAEP scores

What It Means: What people have expected, more or less. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “Nation’s Report Card,” is a test taken by fourth- and eighth-graders every two years. After making considerable strides in both math and English during the late 1990s and early 2000s — the salad days of what is sometimes called the accountability era — progress since 2007 has been basically flat. And 2017’s scores were no exception: Eighth-graders made a two-point improvement in reading, but nobody’s popping champagne corks over that. The stagnation led one expert to call the last 10 years a “lost decade” for education reform.

One new development did stand out though: While aggregate scores have remained stuck over the last few years, there actually has been upward movement for the test’s highest performers, along with a slight decline for the lowest performers. That growing gap is something to keep an eye on when the next round of scores is released.

21 percentage points

What It Is: The greater likelihood of low-income kids earning a diploma if they attend a career or technical high school

What It Means: The finding comes from a startling study published by University of Connecticut professor Shaun Dougherty, who has spent years researching the impact of career and technical education (CTE). In the study, Dougherty examined graduation statistics from 36 Massachusetts technical high schools, where students learn a typical academic curriculum alongside classes in specific workforce skills. While CTE has historically been derided as vocational education, a special track for students who won’t make it to college, Dougherty’s research has found the opposite: Kids from low-income families who learn professional skills are markedly more likely to earn a diploma than those enrolled in typical schools.

In a secondary analysis, comparing students who had either just missed or barely made the cutoff for admission to three of the CTE schools, Dougherty again found that both low-income students and their more affluent classmates were between 7 and 10 percentage points more likely to graduate.

This article was published in partnership with The 74.

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