John Bridgeland

John Bridgeland

CEO, Civic Enterprises


Listen to the perspectives of those on the front lines of schools—students, dropouts, parents, teachers, school counselors and administrators.

With a national graduation rate of more than 75 percent in 2009—up from 72 percent in 2001—nearly one in four Americans, and four in 10 minorities, do not complete high school with their class. We cannot solve America’s dropout crisis without listening to the voices of those individuals most affected by it—the students, parents, teachers, school counselors and administrators. There is no substitute for understanding the reality on the ground—and they can offer unique insight into the problems facing their schools and communities and innovative ideas on how we can solve those challenges.

For example, Civic Enterprises worked with Hart Research to listen to the perspectives of dropouts all across America to understand their life stories, challenges, hopes and solutions to keep more students on the graduation track. Among many findings catalogued in the report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called The Silent Epidemic, we discovered that most students could have graduated, that they felt trapped in schools built for a different century and economy, and that they wanted to see the relationship between what they were learning and what they wanted to be in life. They pointed the way forward—more personalized and engaging learning environments, teachers and counselors knowing their names and interests, parents engaged early in the process around both success and challenge, and above all, high expectations that they could succeed.

We also discovered one big surprise. In some jurisdictions, dropouts described how they "signed out of high school" forever on their 16th birthday. We soon learned that the majority of states permitted young people to drop out of high school at the age of 16 and that many of these laws had been written 100 years ago when students left school to work in factories and on farms. The economy of the early 20th century did not demand a high school diploma or college for many jobs, as it does today. Because we listened to dropouts, we were able to identify—and address—this critical lever.

Since The Silent Epidemic was released, about a dozen states have raised the legal dropout age over the last decade, now ensuring that a majority of states do not permit young people to leave school on their 16th birthday. And, in the 18 states that have not updated their laws, such as Alaska, Kentucky, Maryland and Wyoming, legislation has been introduced to do so. This solution is no silver bullet, but when combined with high quality teaching, multiple pathways to success, and support for struggling students, it sends the right signal that we expect students to graduate from high school and to pursue college and their dreams.


Good data can predict and prevent school dropouts.

Early Warning Indicator and Intervention Systems (EWS) can become powerful tools in school systems and states across America to keep students on track to graduate from high school prepared for college and the workforce. Research shows that we can predict as early as late elementary school and middle school the early warning signs that lead to dropping out—chronic absenteeism, poor behavior, and course failure in reading and math. The development and implementation of early warning systems should become an urgent national priority. There are powerful examples of the public, private and nonprofit sectors coming together to use data to get children back on track to graduate.

For example, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri (BBBSEMO) and their local school districts have created a unique, replicable and outcomes-oriented partnership that leveraged an early warning system to improve the lives of children. BBBS nationally is working to replicate this model. In Knoxville, Tennessee, the local chamber of commerce set the challenge that Knox County and adjoining Oak Ridge would have the best workforce in the country as well as be a beacon for new business. To achieve this goal, they have collaborated with the local school system to build an early warning system. MBA candidates volunteered their time to analyze what was working, and a retired CEO stepped in to oversee system design. These partnerships are outstanding examples of what works—which is important, because we have a long way to go. Only 16 states produce early warning reports and another 16 states report that they have no plans or have no set date for doing so. Of those producing the reports, only four states report that they distribute them to educators on a weekly or daily basis.


Federal and state policy is important, but has its limits.

Federal and state policymakers in Washington, DC and in state capitals have an important role to play in transforming our schools. By encouraging the development of rigorous standards, supporting innovation through funding, and sharing best practices from schools and districts across the country and the states, state and federal policy has helped fight our dropout crisis.

But policy can’t do it alone. The dropout crisis affects all of us (graduating half of one class of dropouts would save the U.S. taxpayer $45 billion in that year), which is why we have assembled the Civic Marshall Plan Leadership Council comprised of policymakers, educators, community leaders, businesses and foundations. This group is a highly focused, targeted collaborative that is committed to transforming the lowest-performing schools and providing pathways to postsecondary success for students through aligning with research-based benchmarks, creating and executing “big institutional plays,” and supporting strong, cohesive national and state policies that support the Civic Marshall Plan. For example, this year, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) launched American Graduate: Let's Make It Happen—an initiative to help combat the dropout crisis in this country. Local public radio and television stations, located in 20 "hub markets" where the dropout crisis is most acute, are at the core of the American Graduate initiative.

 These stations are leveraging the power of public media against this national crisis, convening stakeholders, raising awareness, and providing tools and other resources to educators, parents and students themselves to engage them in addressing the dropout challenge in their communities.


We are making progress, but we’re not there yet.

The nation is making progress in the effort to build a Grad Nation. High school graduation rates are improving, increasing three and a half percentage points from 2001 to 2009, and inched up half of a percentage point to 75.5 percent from 2008 to 2009. Moreover, we have examples of states, districts and schools that have made great progress, serving as a challenge that others can do it too. In the last decade, the graduation rate was up nearly 15 percentage points at Dothan High School in Alabama.

In Washington County Public Schools, Maryland, the graduation rate rose from 78 percent in 2000 to 92 percent in 2010. Wisconsin became the first state to achieve the Civic Marshall Plan goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate and Vermont is only 0.4 of a point shy of this goal at 89.6 percent. Tennessee and New York lead the nation in boosting graduation rates, with double-digit gains of 18 and 13 percentage points, respectively.

But, if we stay on pace, the national high school graduation rate will be closer to 80 percent in 2020, far short of our goal of 90 percent, leaving millions of Americans unprepared to contribute to the economy and society. So, the success stories of Dothan, Washington County, Wisconsin and Tennessee, among others, serve as examples to the nation—and to the more than 1,500 “dropout factory” high schools, where getting a degree remains a 50/50 proposition—that the seemingly impossible is possible.


The battle to achieve our national high school graduation goals will be won or lost in 13 states—and could add billions to the economy.

Just as educators in schools and districts can leverage data through early warning systems to identify students who are on track and off track to graduate, policymakers can leverage data to determine their priorities. From 2002 to 2009 (the most recent data available provided by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins), about half the states made gains in the past year and half did not. There are 12 states whose efforts accounted for the majority of additional high school graduates, collectively accounting for 104,000 of the nation’s 134,000 additional graduates in 2009. We must keep our foot on the accelerator in these leading states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. The data also show there are a few key states that have the largest numbers of students to get back on track to graduate and they need to be the most aggressive in accelerating their graduation rate by 2020. The battle to meet the national high school graduation rate goal will be in large part won or lost in 13 states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Washington.

Between 2002 and 2009, these states have made very modest gains, no improvements, or slipped backwards in their high school graduation rates. They also have large numbers of students (5,000 or more per cohort) who need to be moved from dropouts to graduates, and they need to increase their graduation rate by 1 percentage point or more per year to achieve a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. These states need to collectively produce a quarter million more graduates in 2020 than in 2009 to achieve the Grad Nation goal. The benefits would be enormous. Reaching the Grad Nation goal would pump billions of dollars into the economy, through increased individual earnings, revenue, and economic activity. For example, if each state had met the goal of a 90 percent graduation rate, there would have been more than 580,000 additional high school graduates from the Class of 2011. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, these additional graduates would have earned $6 billion more in income with a high school diploma as compared to their earnings as dropouts. This would have created a ripple effect through the national economy, increasing the gross domestic product by an estimated $6.6 billion.

Addressing our high school dropout challenge is a moral, social and economic issue. As Joel Klein and Condi Rice demonstrated in their recent report, it is also a national security issue. Let’s keep this issue high on national, state and local agendas and help millions of young people fulfill their dreams.

The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.


John Bridgeland is President & CEO of Civic Enterprises and Vice Chairman of Malaria No More, a nonprofit working to end malaria deaths in Africa. Over the past two years, Bridgeland co-led the development of ServiceNation and ServiceWorld, to increase service opportunities for Americans. Previously, Bridgeland served as Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Assistant to the President of the United States, and first Director of the USA Freedom Corps. President Obama recently appointed Bridgeland to the White House Council for Community Solutions. He is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Virginia School of Law and was named Non-Profit Executive of the Year in 2009 for his work in developing the Serve America Act that was signed into law.