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High School Graduation Rates Are Up. Should We Thank Obama?

On Monday morning, President Barack Obama got a rapturous greeting from students and educators at Benjamin Banneker High School, a magnet school in Washington, D.C., where 100 percent of students are nonwhite and 100 percent earn a diploma. Obama was there to give a valedictory address of his own. He announced that in 2015, the nation’s high school graduation rate reached a historic high of 83.2 percent. This achievement, the president said, was due to his administration’s policies. Some of those efforts, like expanding access to early childhood education, are widely celebrated. Others are divisive, such as holding teachers accountable for student performance and encouraging states to adopt more rigorous academic standards, like the Common Core.

It’s true that the news is good. Over the past four years, graduation rates increased by 4.2 percent for all students and by even more for groups such as black students (an increase of 7.6 percent), English learners (8.1 percent), and low-income students (6.1 percent). While there are still significant racial and socioeconomic gaps in high school graduation rates, those gaps have shrunk, with black, Latino, and Native American students beginning to catch up to their white peers. Though many states continue to have low standards for earning a diploma, it’s still important that as many teenagers as possible finish high school. Those who graduate are less likely to be unemployed and earn more than those who drop out, even if they do not go on to college.

But it’s difficult to determine which factors are truly responsible for this progress, and to what extent President Obama can take credit for them. I spoke to Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise, the research arm of America’s Promise Alliance—a nonprofit founded by Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, to raise high school graduation rates. (Powell was in the audience for Obama’s speech Monday.) Zaff believes that the school accountability efforts of presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama all played a role in increasing graduation rates.