Philadelphia School District graduation rate betters America’s college graduation rate

by Christopher Paslay


In a recent Inquirer article headlined “School proposal targets dropout problem,” writer Kristen A. Graham describes the Philadelphia School District’s graduation rate as “among the worst in the country—about 50 percent.” 


I find her choice of words quite interesting.  For starters, the district’s graduation rate isn’t among the worst in the country.  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, Philadelphia’s graduation rate is well over half. 


Listed at 62 percent, it was tied for 12th out of America’s 50 largest urban districts in 2005.  Only six percentage points separated Philadelphia from #5 ranked Colorado Springs School District, which graduated 68 percent of their students within four years.


12th out of 50 is hardly “among the worst in the country.”


It doesn’t appear that the Inquirer gives much credence to the Cities in Crisis report, however.  The Inky seems to prefer statistics compiled in a 2006 Johns Hopkins University study which put the city’s graduation rate at 54 percent (according to Cities in Crisis, there were 26 schools under 54 percent, which would still put the district in the top half).


But even at 54 percent, the district still has a higher graduation rate than America’s colleges.  According to the American Enterprise Institute, only 53 percent of college students graduated in six years with a bachelor’s degree from schools they enrolled in as freshmen. 


Several local colleges and universities graduated even less.  Widener University graduated 52 percent; Delaware Valley College and Philadelphia University graduated 50 percent; Lincoln University graduated 38 percent; and Cheyney University graduated only 29 percent.         


Education officials offered reasons for the low numbers.  Among them were the fact that some schools enroll first-generation Americans and low-income students who are in need of extra support. 


Cheyney spokeswoman Antoinette Colon also gave reasons for the low graduation rates.  “We traditionally take students who come from underestablished educational systems in Philadelphia and the Chester area,” she said.


Very interesting.  College graduation rates are low because of first-generation Americans (English language learners) and because they take kids from poor neighborhoods. 


Sounds a lot like the Philadelphia School District.


Of course, there are some major differences between America’s colleges and our city’s public school system.  For starters, colleges and universities get to pick-and-choose their clientele—they can weed-out and reject students because of low academic performance or behavioral problems or any other reason they so choose. 


Because of Pennsylvania’s Compulsory Education law, the Philadelphia School District must accept all children—even those who don’t want to be in school, those who are violent, emotionally disturbed, or here in this country illegally. 


Other differences between America’s colleges and our city’s school system: colleges have abundant supplies and resources; Philly schools don’t; colleges can throw failing and unruly students out to preserve order and control; Philly school can’t; colleges are headed by prestigious “high quality” educators with doctoral degrees, Philly schools, to quote the Inquirer, “are straddled with bad teachers” and are run by Teach for America transplants.    


All in all, I think the district is doing a bang-up job for keeping pace with America’s colleges and universities. 


After all, they could be worse.  They could be Lincoln or Cheyney University, whose graduation rates are 38 and 29 percent, respectively.