Reaching the middle class

In “Pathways to the Middle Class: Balancing Personal and Public Responsibilities” (Issues, Winter 2013), Isabel Sawhill, Scott Winship, and Kerry Searle Grannis present achievable early milestones sufficient for people to reach the middle class by middle age. They provide an instructive framework for understanding the circumstances that lead children and young adults to succeed—or fall down—while climbing the economic ladder. Understanding these opportunities and pitfalls helps policymakers better design and target interventions that increase children’s likelihood of success.

Consistent with academic research, Sawhill et al. emphasize the importance of early childhood success for future outcomes. Differences in school readiness by income and race appear among children as young as age 4 or 5, and early interventions can help equalize the playing field for disadvantaged children. Early childhood education programs to increase school readiness, such as Head Start, increase the chance that a child will attain a middle-class income by middle age. The evidence suggests that expanding pre-kindergarten programs more broadly would improve adult outcomes.

Sawhill et al. also emphasize the importance of family in successful childrearing. Some express concern that increased government intervention in early childhood education supplants parents’ role in raising their young children. However, the evidence from the Head Start Impact Study, in which certain children were randomly chosen to be eligible for Head Start, shows the opposite: Head Start enrollment increases the time parents spend with their children. For example, Head Start enrollment leads parents to spend 20% more time reading to their children on average, and it leads absent fathers to spend an average of around one day a month more with their children. These increases in parental involvement are sustained, lasting at least several years after children are enrolled in Head Start.

College attainment represents a later milestone in the pathway to the middle class. However, as Sawhill et al. point out, children’s college completion rates are highly correlated with parents’ socio economic status, in part because enrollment and graduation require significant family resources. This socioeconomic gap has widened over time, hardening income persistence across generations. The federal government plays a key role in increasing college attainment by expanding college accessibility through its variety of financial aid programs. Need-based financial aid, such as subsidized Stafford loans and Pell grants, specifically targets low-income students who might otherwise not be able to afford college.

As Sawhill et al. argue, success begets success and public policy interventions can prevent initial disadvantages from becoming entrenched over time. James Heckman’s work has shown that successful interventions at one stage of life increase the effectiveness of interventions at other stages. This suggests an “all-of-the-above” strategy to broadly target achieving the milestones at each stage of life identified by Sawhill et al.


Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy and Chief Economist
U.S. Treasury
Washington, DC

The detailed, data-packed article by Sawhill et al. is important on many fronts. Among other things, it points out that even though early intervenis especially powerful, and even though early disadvantage casts a long shadow over lifelong prospects, it is never too late to make a difference in a person’s life trajectory. It also offers numerical estimates of risk over a lifetime, which helps to answer such perennial questions as “how great is the disadvantage imposed by limited education, gender and other life circumstances? “ In the aggregate, such data help explain the concept of social mobility in America, including what is at stake and when to intervene.

One aspect of the presentation deserves particular praise, and that is the authors’ clear-eyed focus on beginning at the beginning, which is not early childhood—not “zero to three”—but rather the circumstances under which pregnancy occurs. With rare exceptions, this article being one the social interventions typically highlighted to help build stronger children and families begin after pregnancy is confirmed. For example, child and family advocates often argue for more programs to encourage early participation in prenatal care, more programs to support adequate maternal nutrition, more home-visiting programs to begin instruction on parenting, and so on. These are good ideas, on balance, but rarely do these same advocates talk openly about the circumstances surrounding conception itself; that is, when (before high school or more is completed)? with whom (a committed partner)? and under what circumstances (while in heavy debt or facing other serious challenges)? In contrast, the Sawhill et al. article makes abundantly clear that a child’s risk of becoming or remaining poor is deeply affected by maternal age and education as well as the extent to which a pregnancy is marital or nonmarital, intended or unintended—all of which are circumstances that can be ameliorated to a greater or lesser extent before pregnancy occurs.

To begin at the real beginning means that social policy would give a great deal more attention to pregnancy planning and prevention: to helping young people complete an adequate amount of education before becoming parents, to encouraging them to choose mates carefully given that raising a child is expensive and requires many years of dedication, and to avoiding unplanned, unintended pregnancy. Without a willingness to begin at the real beginning, reducing income inequality and strengthening the overall prospects of all Americans will remain less effective and more expensive than necessary.


Chief Executive Officer
National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy
Washington, DC

Talk of inequality has been in political campaigns and in the media in recent months. Sawhill and her colleagues make a crucial contribution by documenting the challenges that low-income children face in succeeding in school and life: Sadly, in today’s America, economically disadvantaged children have a much lower chance of reaching the middle class than their parents and grandparents did.

With this powerful finding in mind, what becomes most important is understanding the challenges that these young people face and the opportunities that can improve their academic and vocational chances. When they experience misfortunes or inevitably make mistakes, as everyone does, the consequences can be far greater than for their wealthier peers. If they become pregnant, have a run-in with the law, or lose a part-time job, they and their parents are much less likely to have the resources to cushion the blow and smooth the road. But just avoiding trouble does not put a young person on a path to the middle class. That’s why policymakers need to focus on creating the conditions that give every child a real opportunity to succeed.

As Sawhill et al. suggest with their thoughtful recommendations for action, we know that good schools are crucial but not sufficient on their own for the long-term academic, vocational, and economic success of our nation’s young people. Research, community wisdom, and common sense tell us that families, the broader community, and schools need to work together to create integrated systems of support for each child. These supports are what America’s Promise Alliance calls the Five Promises: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, an effective education, and opportunities to serve. Numerous empirical studies show that when young people experience these key developmental supports throughout the first two decades of life, they are more likely to exhibit good socioemotional skills, give back to their communities, and achieve academically and vocationally.

Parents, community leaders, educators, youth workers, and policymakers have focused intense effort to provide these assets. And all of these efforts are starting to pay off. According to the recently released Building a Grad Nation, the high-school graduation rate in 2010 (the most recent data available) was 78.2%, a 6.5 percentage point increase since 2001. This puts the nation on track to achieving the goal of America’s Promise Alliance’s Grad Nation Campaign; a 90% high-school graduation rate by 2020. Although graduating from high school is not sufficient to reach the middle class, it is a crucial starting point.

Americans pride themselves on living in the land of opportunity. By providing each young person with the conditions for success, we can help make the American Dream, including educational, economic, and social mobility, a reality for more and more young people.


President and CEO.
America’s Promise Alliance
Washington, DC

A new research model

In their excellent paper “RIP: The Basic/ Applied Research Dichotomy” (Issues, Winter 2013) authors Venkatesh Narayanamurti, Tolu Odumosu, and Lee Vinse take on the much-debated practice of labeling research, particularly federally supported research, as basic or applied and argue that we should put an end to such one-dimensional categorizations. They comment that the two-dimensional model of the late Don Stokes moved the discussion in the right direction but that it does not go far enough. Arguing that the innovation process is much more complex than either the basic/applied dichotomy or Stokes’ quadrants approach implies, they offer a new characterization of research as “discovery” and “invention.” They note that whatever the initial motivation, research can lead to the discovery of new knowledge about the world as well as the invention of new technologies or processes that have useful applications; indeed, both can result, and they can occur in either order or simultaneously. The authors underpin their arguments with examples in the domain of information and communication (IC) by showing how IC-relevant research discoveries and inventions that led to Nobel Prizes intersected to create new knowledge and technologies and, thus, argue that discovery and invention are not orthogonal and that the arrow between the two may reverse over time

The authors’ criticisms of the linear basic and applied model are sound, as are their arguments for seeking a more accurate model. But I would urge some caution: rapid change in long-standing federal policy often ends badly, and complicated arguments tend to be lost or misinterpreted in our political system. The suggestion of discovery and invention to describe research is an “outcomes” approach, in contrast to basic and applied, which reflect the motivation of the researcher (and often the funding entity). Moreover, as the authors point out, it can take many decades to realize research outcomes. Given this time frame, it is difficult to see how to set priorities in the allocation of funds to different fields of science or, at the grant level, how to select one proposal over another. On the matter of deciding what kind of research is appropriate for the federal government to support and what is best left to private industry, the authors suggest that “federal support is most appropriate for research that focuses on long-term projects with clear public utility,” and they note that “such research could have its near-term focus on either new knowledge or new technology.” But, while “clear public utility” might be appropriate for research in health, energy, security, the environment, and other areas of national interest, what about fundamental studies in most fields of the natural and social sciences, which industry will not support? Even in the most esoteric experimental research fields, such as observational astronomy or elementary particle physics, the interplay between fundamental studies and new technologies, many of practical importance, is richly nonlinear and unpredictable. Furthermore, I would argue that discovering new knowledge about the natural world is in the public interest.

All that said, the authors have made an important contribution to the policy discussion, and we need all the good ideas we can get. The invention and discovery approach points to the effectiveness of a particular kind of research culture, perhaps not unlike Bell Labs in the early days, where scientists and engineers in many fields worked in close proximity, sharing ideas, discoveries, and invention, and were given sufficient time to realize the fruits of their efforts. Although it is perhaps easier to create such an environment in industry than in a university or even national laboratory, the federal research funding agencies should consider how they might include such a model in their program planning, try some experiments, and assess some outcomes.


Senior Fellow in Science and Technology Policy

James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy
Malcolm Gillis University Professor
Rice University
Houston, Texas

Better energy innovation

Michael Levi’s call for “modest” federal programs to stimulate energy innovation (“The Hidden Risks of Energy Innovation,” Issues, Winter 2013) wisely cautions against all-too-common overreaching on the part of advocates and against large, all-in programs that pick winners and losers a priori.

Given the magnitude and extent of our dependence on fossil fuels, it seems clear that there is no single-sector panacea; rather, it is more likely that a diversified portfolio of energy solutions, all sectors of which are ripe for innovation, will emerge for the future; and, given budget realities, this is consistent with the notion of modest programs. In the case of renewable energy technologies, the regional nature of renewable resources suggests that this diversified portfolio will be regional in nature, which also argues for investment in a variety of selective ways that offer high potential for payoffs.

One such regional resource that is already the focus of the sort of modest, carefully targeted federal program that Levi suggests—a resource that has received so little attention that it still flies under the radar of most analysts— is marine renewable energy: the potential of waves, tides, currents, and the oceans’ thermal structure. By providing support for research on critical topics and funding (for which significant recipient matches are required) to help bridge the “valley of death” technology gap, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Program is helping to advance the development of this underappreciated renewable resource toward becoming a full-fledged part of a future energy portfolio.

However, one unexpected, and unfortunate, challenge faced by modest programs of this nature is their invisibility relative to other, more high-profile innovation programs. The federal bureaucracy continues to be quite adept at creating significant roadblocks to progress in the form of both intraand interagency turf squabbles and foot-dragging, and the very nature of modest programs, especially their limited funding for relatively short time frames, makes them fatally vulnerable to such roadblocks. Precious dollars are spent on consultants and lobbying rather than on innovation; even more precious time is spent attempting to navigate the roadblocks.

Thus, successful implementation of Levi’s suggestions will need to include something of the nature of a top-down approach from a very high level or expeditious coordination both within and across agencies to prevent these roadblocks. The former —the “czar” approach— has obvious issues, and the latter presents an ongoing challenge for the entire Executive, one that has proven remarkably intractable in the past and is not being met now. But if modest programs are to succeed, we must do better.


Chief Scientist, Southeast National Marine Renewable Energy Center

Professor of Geosciences, Florida Atlantic University
Boca Raton, Florida

Michael Levi offers a compendium of reasons why it would be prudent of us to proceed cautiously with the proposition that public investments in technology might obviate the need for regulatory or pricing policies to address global climate change. Public investment strategies face significant ideological hurdles and risk high-profile failures. There is limited public capacity to subsidize higher-cost low-carbon technologies. And some regulatory action will likely ultimately be necessary to drive a full transition from high-carbon technologies to low-carbon technologies.

All of these are useful cautions as policymakers and advocates take stock of their options in the post–cap-and-trade world domestically and the post-Kyoto world internationally. No climate strategy will be free of political and ideological conflict. As long as low-carbon technologies cost substantially more than high-carbon technologies, neither direct subsidies nor carbon taxes and regulations are likely to be sustainable politically or economically. And even with much better and cheaper low-carbon alternatives, significant regulatory action will probably be necessary to achieve a widespread or rapid transition to a low-carbon energy economy.

The debate between the regulators and the innovators is not about whether any regulation or innovation is necessary. It is about which is the tail and which is the dog. And although most technology advocates, including the two of us, recognize the need for regulatory actions, we typically believe that lacking much better technological options, the effects of regulatory action will be modest at best and counterproductive at worst.

Whether one thinks that we have most or all of the technologies we need to mitigate climate change or are likely to develop those technologies in response to regulatory mandates turns out to be rather consequential to what one thinks we should do right now. Hence, the U.S. environmental movement, with the blessings of much of the climate and energy policy community, chose to invest somewhere north of a billion dollars over the past decade in passing a cap–and-trade program that, had it passed, would have established mandatory caps on emissions that under the best of circumstances would have had extremely modest effects on emissions and in retrospect would have established no constraint whatsoever on emissions. Thanks to the recession and the gas revolution (made possible in no small part by a three-decade public technology strategy), U.S. emissions are well below those that would have been mandated by the cap.

Levi would have us believe that the fatal flaw in this strategy was the “maximizing” conceit that passing a cap on emissions would solve both our climate and economic ills. This has become a popular trope among defenders of the environmental movement’s ill-conceived cap-and-trade effort. Had advocates, the story goes, kept the message focused on the climate issue, rather than getting distracted by the public’s demonstrable concern about the state of the U.S. economy, the effort would have fared better.

In this, Levi and others who have advanced this argument confuse messaging that was a symptom of cap-and-trade’s political toxicity with its cause. The more obvious source of cap–andtrade’s demise was the attempt to raise energy prices in the midst of the worst recession in half a century. Claims that the passage of cap-and-trade would create jobs and economic growth were a desperate attempt to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. The U.S. public quite rightly refused to believe that policies explicitly designed to raise energy costs would result in jobs and economic growth.

Moreover, chalking up cap–andtrade’s failure to the particular economic circumstances of the Great Recession fails to reckon with Americans’ abiding distaste for policies designed to raise their energy bills, particularly when those efforts aim to change their behavior. Cap-and-trade has now failed four times in the U.S. Congress, in good economic times and bad, and under both Democratic and Republican control. Efforts to raise Americans’ energy prices in the name of environmental protection have now been directly implicated in Democrats’ losing control of congressional majorities not once but twice over the past 20 years.

Levi suggests that the backlash against Solyndra and other failed technology investments demonstrates that technology- and innovation-centered approaches to climate mitigation are no less toxic politically. Yet despite concerted efforts by Republican operatives to turn Solyndra into a political scandal and campaign issue, not a single Democrat appears to have lost their seat over that controversy. Indeed, in contrast to cap–and-trade, which Democrats banished entirely from their vocabulary after the debacle of the 2010 elections, the President and congressional Democrats continued to tout their commitment to public investments in clean energy technology throughout the recent campaign.

Any lingering question about the relative toxicity of public technology investment policies as compared to carbon caps and taxes should have been put to rest in the weeks after the election, when the President, in his first post-election news conference, again in his inaugural address, and yet again in his State of the Union address, reiterated his intention to continue to press for energy technology investments while ruling out any renewed effort to establish carbon caps or a carbon tax as a priority in his second administration.

Levi is right to note that more highprofile failures like Solyndra risk further inflaming public skepticism about the efficacy of public technology investments. But such skepticism seems to mostly emanate from policy elites like Levi, not the public at large. Public support for government investments in energy technology, clean and conventional, has remained strong despite Solyndra and indeed through myriad failures in decades past.

What the U.S. public seems to understand, and too many energy policy analysts seem to forget, is that any successful technology innovation effort, be it public or private, must have a high failure rate if it is to succeed. Energy technology innovation is hard work and it is expensive, but when it succeeds the payoffs are huge. Just the past few years of the shale gas boom, a product of just such a costly process of trial and error (and one that was savaged in its day by soft-energy environmentalists and neoclassically trained analysts alike), will more than cover the cost of all public subsidies for all energy technologies, clean and dirty, since 1950.

Nonetheless, Levi is right that in these times of ideological polarization and fiscal austerity, energy technology advocates would be well served to look for ways to make public policies designed to accelerate innovation and support emerging technologies more effective and less costly. And they should avoid overpromising. New energy technologies take decades to develop and longer still to displace incumbent technologies. The real benefits from energy technology investments come not from creating jobs or installing above-cost, heavily subsidized technologies, but from technological revolutions that make energy cheaper and cleaner. Although the millions of jobs promised through both the green stimulus investments and cap-and-trade never materialized, the shale gas revolution is projected to create a million new jobs in the oil and gas industry by 2015 and has already generated hundreds of billions of dollars in additional economic growth in the United States annually since 2007.

In the end, despite a number of faulty assumptions, Levi does reach the right conclusion. He writes: “Indeed, a core goal of domestic technology policy should be to make regulation and other incentives easier. Anything that helps cut the cost of technology will reduce the economic burden of other policies when they are eventually pursued, making them more politically palatable.”

Those who believe that energy innovation is the central challenge that all climate mitigation strategies must address could not have said it better. With cheap, clean energy technology, anything is possible; without it, to paraphrase Macbeth, climate politics and policy amount to much sound and fury, signifying nothing.




The Breakthrough Institute Oakland, CA

Energy conversion

In “Four Technologies and a Conundrum: The Glacial Pace of Energy Innovation,” (Issues, Winter 2013), Michael E. Webber, Roger D. Duncan, and Marianne Shivers Gonzalez provide useful insights into the U.S. energy system by re-casting the conventional picture of energy consumption by resource and end-use sector into one that highlights the major technologies we employ to convert primary energy into more usable forms. In this framework, they identify four technologies that together provide two-thirds of U.S. energy: steam and combustion turbines (primarily for electricity generation), and two types of internal combustion engines (spark- and compression-ignition, used mainly for transportation). All of these technologies, they note, date from the late 18th and 19th centuries (as do others on their list). Thus, they see that “fundamental innovation in power and transportation technology is slow” and call for increased R&D investments concentrated on new energy conversion pathways that reduce waste heat, along with policies that can accelerate the development, commercialization, and adoption of new technologies at scale.

Certainly there is no denying that the U.S. energy sector in general, and the electric power industry in particular, have been laggards in the pace of innovation, as reflected by such measures as patenting activity, R&D spending, and the size of the R&D workforce. Data we assembled for a recent National Academies study, for example, estimated that the ratio of R&D spending to sales was in the range of only 0.2 to 2.2% for energy-related U.S. industries, with utilities near the low end of that range. This compared to roughly 10 to 17% for industries such as software/ computer services, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology. Similarly, the percentage of R&D scientists and engineers in the U.S. utilities labor force (0.3%) was minuscule compared to the most innovative industries (10 to 20%) and far smaller than the average for all U.S. industries (7.1%). Equally sobering has been the sharp decline in federal energy R&D spending over the past three decades, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of all federal nondefense R&D. As a result, the United States spends less on energy R&D than many other industrialized countries as a percentage of gross domestic product, and less than some smaller countries (such as Japan) on an absolute basis as well.

The call by Webber et al. for measures to reverse this trend and accelerate the pace of energy technology innovation thus rings true, and echoes other recent studies. The authors don’t say, however, exactly what policy measures besides R&D investments they would recommend, nor do they elaborate on why folks other than engineers should care about thermodynamic efficiency. Implicit in their discussion, however, is the potential for new energy-conversion technologies to dramatically reduce the rate of natural resource depletion and move us toward a zero-carbon economy based on renewable energy sources. If these in fact are the societal goals we seek, achieving them any time soon will require not only policy “carrots” (such as more R&D) but also policy “sticks” that significantly limit greenhouse gas emissions and create markets for efficient new lowcarbon technologies. Webber et al. call it “imperative” that appropriate policies be put in place soon, an urgency underscored in the America’s Climate Choices study.

Toward that end, the energy accounting scheme they illustrate provides a useful perspective that can help identify major targets of opportunity for technological change. Their approach would be even more useful if electricity generation were treated not as a final end-use sector but as the intermediate process it is. That could help identify other important devices and conversion technologies (such as motors, servers, and incandescent lamps), in which efficiency gains could further contribute to environmental goals, along with other types of innovations. Finally, we should heed the authors’ admonition to not expect new “breakthrough technologies to magically solve the problem. Although the discovery of novel, radical, breakthrough, leapfrog, out-of-the-box, game-changing technologies is what all energy R&D managers hope for, what in retrospect is seen to be a major innovation is more often than not the product of many years of incremental improvements that could not have been achieved overnight. Together with support for new discoveries and inventions, the sustained pursuit of such improvements should be the bedrock of U.S. policies to foster long-term energy innovations.


Alumni Chair Professor of Environmental Engineering and Science

Professor of Engineering and Public Policy and Mechanical Engineering

Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniarubin

Keeping kids in school

“Staying in School: A Proposal for Raising High-School Graduation Rates” (Issues, Winter 2013) by Derek Messacar and Phillip Oreopoulus hits on an issue that every state and chief state school officer has on the education reform agenda. In Kentucky, we have had legislation proposed to raise the dropout age from 16 to 18 for the past four years. Governor Steve Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear have been tremendous champions of this legislation, and we have typically been able to move the legislation through the House of Representatives. However, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. This year, however, there are positive signs for a compromise on the legislation.

As a former school superintendent whose district was very successful in lowering the dropout rate, I was at first confused by the resistance of legislators and educators in Kentucky to raising the dropout age. The resistance centered on several key issues. First and foremost was the concern about an unfunded mandate created by raising the dropout age. Superintendents were concerned that raising the dropout age would mean that over 6000 more students (16-, 17-, and 18–year-olds) would remain in school, and the state did not have funds to support these students. The next concern was behavior. Many teachers expressed concern that forcing students to stay in school who did not want to be in school would create unsafe schools and classrooms. Also, numerous legislators suggested that the research does not support raising the dropout age. Simplistic correlation studies among states that have raised the dropout age show little to no impact on graduation rates. Finally, the major concern was the lack of funding and resources to support the needed alternative and career/technical programs.

The Messacar and Oreopoulos article provides significant research and data to address the concerns that were voiced in Kentucky and across the nation. A key issue that the article brings to the front is that raising the dropout age has a positive impact on the state’s economy and also lowers a state’s incarceration costs and social program costs. In the long run, raising the dropout age is a revenue producer and not an unfunded mandate.

The national blueprint proposed by the authors does provide concrete suggestions for states and chief state school officers as they address the dropout issue. Ensuring that every child graduates from high school with the skills needed to be successful in college and careers or the military is the moral, civil rights, safety, and economic imperative of our generation.


Commissioner of Education
Kentucky Department of Education
Frankfort, Kentucky

We can all agree that long-term solutions to our nation’s jobs crisis require us to build a world-class workforce. To do this, we must think strategically about keeping kids in school, and we must ensure that all students graduate from high school on time, ready to enter college or start their careers. As suggested by Messacar and Oreopoulos, nothing short of a comprehensive approach will adequately address our nation’s high-school dropout problem.

Part of any multi-tiered solution should suggest that we transform the school experience to be more relevant and rigorous for students. As a former biology teacher, career and tech-ed high-school principal, and local district superintendent, I’ve seen firsthand the opportunities that exist when students are given more ways to learn in challenging and engaging classroom environments. Project Lead the Way is a terrific example of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program that equips students with the skills necessary to compete for high-skill, high-wage jobs.

There’s no question that the most powerful component of any school is the effectiveness of its educators. A great teacher has a lifelong impact on his or her students—in fact, I consider this the most important factor in addressing high-school graduation and dropout rates. We can foster a culture of excellence by ensuring that every classroom has a great teacher, every school has an effective principal, and every district has dynamic local leadership. Through professional evaluation systems and transparent school performance measures, we can recognize local schools for their work.

Another opportunity to decrease dropout rates lies in our ability to find new ways to engage parents. The first step any educator, community member, or legislative leader can take is to advocate for policies that give parents the freedom to choose the school that best meets their child’s needs. Whether it’s through charter schools, magnet schools, or traditional public school transfers, school choice provides an important opportunity to meaningfully engage parents.

Finally, as a state education chief, I understand that it’s tempting to become prescriptive in any well-intentioned effort to decrease high-school dropout rates. While there is no silver bullet that will solve this problem, if we hold ourselves accountable for the results we hope to see in education, and if we give local schools the flexibility to compete, then we will spur innovation at the district level. Messacar and Oreopoulos make a fine argument in favor of increasing the mandatory attendance age, but I fear that unless we transform the school experience in a comprehensive manner, we will continue to elicit marginal results.


Florida Department of Education
Tallahassee, Florida

I enjoyed reading “Staying in School.” I would like to share some additional points to help us continue this critical dialogue about the importance of high-school graduation and dropout prevention.

Many of your readers may not know that the national dropout rate the authors refer to does not include the number of students who drop out but later return to school. For this reason, nearly every state in the nation now calculates and reports four- and five-year cohort graduation rates. These rates reflect the percentage of students who enter high school and graduate four or five years later. In North Carolina, our four-year cohort graduation rate hit an all-time high of 80.4% in 2011–2012. This milestone also represents an increase of 12.1 percentage points since the state first reported a four-year cohort rate of 68.3% in 2006.

In addition, the United States saw a 78.2% four-year graduation rate in 2010, which is up 6.5 percentage points from the 71.7% national rate in 2001, according to the 2013 Building a Grad Nation report released last month. Although there is certainly more work to be done, these achievements at the state and national levels are important to note.

The significant improvement in North Carolina’s graduation rate certainly did not happen by chance. We have implemented many initiatives aimed at keeping students in school, and our hard work is paying off. For example, we have offered many students the opportunity to earn industry-recognized career certifications through our Career and Technical Education program. These programs help students make a real connection between what they are learning in the classroom today and the jobs they will be applying for in the future. Students earned more than 91,000 of these certifications last year, and we are hoping for an even higher number in 2013.

We also are providing many public high-school students an opportunity to get a head start on a college education, for free. North Carolina currently leads the nation with its number of early college high schools, where students can earn a high-school diploma and up to two years of college credit in just four years.

And most recently, we have revised and updated our state’s entire curriculum to reflect the knowledge and skills students must master at each grade level, so they can be successful in higher education and the workplace. We have done all of this work to move us closer to reaching our ultimate goal of a 100% high-school graduation rate.

I appreciate your highlighting the issue of raising the compulsory attendance age. This is certainly one method among many that could help keep more students in school. And while we consider this strategy, let’s also remember to recognize the progress we have made and the successes we have seen so far, so we can ensure not only that more students earn diplomas, but also that they are leaving high school prepared for college, careers, and citizenship.


State Superintendent
Public Schools of North Carolina
Raleigh, North Carolina

“Staying in School” aptly identifies the complexities as well as the policy opportunities surrounding state and federal efforts to increase high-school graduation rates. I launched Graduation Matters Montana in 2010 to dramatically decrease the number of Montana high-school students who drop out each year. Through a private/public partnership, 28 communities have launched a Graduation Matters initiative, meaning that local schools, community organizations, and main street businesses are working together to address their community’s dropout rate and to develop more college and career pathways.

Early signs are that the strategy is working: 65% of Montana high-school students now attend a Graduation Matters school, and our state dropout rate has gone from 5.1 to 4.1%.

As state superintendent, I am pursuing all angles, from changing state policies to equipping local community efforts through Tool Kits, technical assistance, and privately funded incentive grants. Our state still allows students to drop out at age 16, and I believe we can do better; yet our state legislature has twice rejected proposals to change that state law. I will not wait for state or federal lawmakers to act. Graduation Matters Montana is equipping local community efforts to support student success.

For more information on our community-based strategy, go to, which contains many resources that are particularly pertinent for rural states and rural communities.


Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction
Helena, Montana

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