Philadelphia School District leads nation with improved graduation rate, new study shows



by Christopher Paslay


Out of America’s 50 largest city school districts, guess which one improved their average graduation rate the most over the last 10 years? 




It’s true.  According to Cities in Crisis 2009: Closing the Graduation Gap, a report prepared for America’s Promise Alliance by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, the Philadelphia School District raised their graduation rate 23 percentage points from 39 percent in 1995 to 62 percent in 2005, making their gains the highest of all major urban school districts in America. 


Unfortunately, the district’s achievement has been largely ignored.  When Philadelphia’s graduation rate is mentioned it’s only in a negative context, with numbers being rounded down—to a convenient and quite inaccurate 50%. 


Half of the students in Philadelphia don’t even graduate, is the familiar line spoken by newspapers looking to churn out editorials, and by politicians hoping to use Philadelphia public schools as a means to win votes.       


But in 2005, the district’s graduation rate was well over half.  At 62 percent it was tied for 12th out of America’s 50 largest urban districts; only 6 percentage points separated Philadelphia from #5 ranked Colorado Springs School District, which graduated 68 percent of their students within four years. 


So why has the press not covered this achievement?  Why hasn’t the mayor and district officials thanked our city’s teachers and shown their appreciation for raising the graduation rate 23 points in the last 10 years? 


Where is Kristen Graham, the Inquirer’s education beat writer?  Did she miss this one?  Maybe we should call her (215-854-5146) or email her at and request that she make public this good news. 


Kristen Graham has written about the district’s dropout rate before.  In a recent article, she detailed how dropouts cost the economy millions, and used statistics from a 2006 Johns Hopkins University study which put the city’s graduation rate at 54 percent; nowhere in her article did she acknowledge the fact that the district has raised its graduation rate 23 percentage points since 1995, however.        


The one newspaper that is covering this topic is the New York Times.  Of course, the Times mentioned Philadelphia’s improved graduation rate as part of a larger article that compared the graduation rates of large urban school districts (53 percent) with those of the suburbs (71 percent). 


The article surmised that school districts in the suburbs are graduating far more students than those in the city.    


Marguerite Kondracke, executive director of the America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to reduce the nation’s dropout rate, said the urban-suburban gap exists because of bad teachers.


“So improving teacher quality is crucial to raising graduation rates in these inner-city schools,” Kondracke told the Times. 


What a shocker Kondracke’s conclusion is—that kids are dropping out of school in America’s big cities because of teachers.  Not because of an urban street culture that preaches that schools are for fools; not because of the breakdown of the family and the lack of father figures in the inner-city; not because of violence and drug addiction; not because of poverty; not because of crumbling urban communities, not because of an instant gratification society that places education at the bottom of the totem pole; no. 


Teens are quitting school because of bad teachers.


People say the community is the result of the educational system, but I believe it’s the other way around: The educational system is the result of the community.  


Take a look at these statistics from a 2006 US Census Bureau survey: 


Families headed by two parents: 82.5%
Residents with High School Diploma: 90.7%
Residents with Bachelor’s Degree: 35.2%
Residents Who Speak a Language Other Than English: 9.8%
Unemployment Rate: 4.3%
Residents Who Are Not a
US Citizen: 3.5%


Families headed by two parents: 83.5%
Residents with High School Diploma: 91.6%
Residents with Bachelor’s Degree: 45%
Residents Who Speak a Language Other Than English: 9.5%
Unemployment Rate: 4.1%
Residents Who Are Not a
US Citizen: 4.3%


Families headed by two parents: 80%
Residents with High School Diploma: 92.2%
Residents with Bachelor’s Degree: 43.4%
Residents Who Speak a Language Other Than English: 10.5%
Unemployment Rate: 3.9%
Residents Who Are Not a
US Citizen: 3.7%


Families headed by two parents: 51.8%
Residents with High School Diploma: 77.5%
Residents with Bachelor’s Degree: 20.7%
Residents Who Speak a Language Other Than English: 19.8%
Unemployment Rate: 12.4%
Residents Who Are Not a
US Citizen: 6.3%


1 in 2 families in Philadelphia are headed by a single parent; 1 in 4 Philadelphians don’t have a high school diploma; 1 in 5 speak a language other than English in their home; 1 in 9 are unemployed; and 1 in 17 aren’t even a US citizen. 


When it comes to parenting, education, employment, citizenship and the English language, Philadelphia is way behind the suburbs. 


That’s a major reason why kids are dropping out in large urban school districts.


But hey, at least Philadelphia is correcting the problem. 


The next time you hear that half the kids in Philadelphia drop out of school, know this: If it weren’t for the city’s hard working school teachers, the dropout rate would probably be double what it is today.


3 thoughts on “Philadelphia School District leads nation with improved graduation rate, new study shows

  1. Kudos, Chris for consistently patting us on the back when nobody else will. Thanks! Yet the skeptic in me wonders how much of the 23% increase in the graduation rate can be attributed to: a) pressure from administrators on teachers to pass undeserving seniors – oh yes, it happens a lot! b) numbers game: prevents teachers from giving a failing grade below 50, which cumulatively, allows students who attend for one semester to pass with glowing colors after disappearing for the rest of the school year c) an IEP, which never results in a failing grade because every student reaches his/her “educational goals.” In most cases this is fair, but there have been exceptions. d) teachers unwilling to fill out extensive, time-consuming Tier I and II CSAP forms, including documentation of each student’s behavior and teacher interventions implemented, which are required in order to fail a student. That being said, the teacher decides that it’s easier to pass the student than deal with the paperwork it would take to fail him.

    Although I know there must be some very hard-working, successful students included in the increased graduation rate, the ones mentioned above do not necessarily reflect student achievement, and I would not be surprised to find that a substantial number of those graduates from the past ten years made it out the door with an unearned diploma.

  2. One way the district has not tried to improve graduation rates is to look at reading instruction.

    I blame the reading instruction not the teachers. Many students never learn to read using the Balanced Literacy reading strategies used in the District elementary schools.

    Kids get lost in first and second grade and never catch up. When they hit middle school they become troublemakers and then drop out early. School is just too hard for them because of poor reading skills.

    Chris, how many kids in your high school classes struggle with reading? How many cannot spell? How many cannot decode a multisyllable word? How many change simple words or skip words or add in words? All of this is a result of the instruction.

    Teaching kids to read has nothing to do with poverty, poor parents, the street culture etc. It has everything to do with the instruction.

    I think I read that Ackerman wants to spend money on Reading Recovery. This program only endorses more Balanced Literacy strategies that have already failed the students.

    I call this mal-instruction and blame the reading experts in this country who disguise their beliefs and programs in faulty research. Ask the publisher of the Trophies reading series used in the schools if they conducted research on their product. I doubt they can find any. They simply add in bits and pieces of everything the Reading Research Panel found was needed but with no systematic, explicit plan of instruction. If in doubt, add it all into one big pot and call it Balanced Literacy.

    So Chris, let’s look at our instruction. I posted before that Project Follow Through, the largest federally funded project from the 1970’s found that Direct Instruction could teach kids regardless of SES levels. The Southwest Regional Research Laboratory, also from the 1970’s got the same results with their reading program. It is their program that I currently use to tutor first and second graders in my Philadelphia public school.

    If we want to blame anyone we should blame the instruction and that is easy to fix.


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