Boys Behind in Graduation Rates: Study

Published July 1, 2006

A wide gender gap in high school graduation rates is most pronounced among minorities in large urban school districts, according to a report from the Manhattan Institute.

“Leaving Boys Behind: Public High School Graduation Rates,” released in April 2006, was written by Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The report does not say why graduation rates are what they are, it just says that there is a problem–it’s very difficult to pinpoint the reasons,” Winters said.

Results Point to Gaps

Key findings from the report, which is based on figures from 2003, the most recent data available, include a national public high school graduation rate of 70 percent. New Jersey and South Carolina bookend the nation with 88 percent and 54 percent graduation rates, respectively. Insufficient data kept the District of Columbia and Hawaii from being included.

“The results are a useful reminder just how low the high school graduation rate is–around 70 percent on average and about 50 percent for minorities,” Winters noted. “The gender gap is also interesting, and we confirmed that it is particularly large for African-American and Hispanic students. It’s certainly worth it to wonder why.”

While the national graduation rate for white students is 78 percent, Greene and Winters found graduation rates for African-American students averaged 55 percent, and for Hispanics, 53 percent. Females are graduating at higher rates than their male counterparts. African-American students display the largest gender gap, at 11 percentage points.

No Goal in Sight

Winters acknowledged that unlike many education standards, such as proficiency on standardized tests, the United States has not set a specific goal for high school graduation rates nationwide.

“At this time, it is not so much that we have a national goal that we are working toward, or falling short of, but I do think it’s fair to say that an acceptable graduation rate for minorities has got to be higher than 50 percent,” Winters said.

Urban Districts Stand Out

Greene and Winters also segmented results by district, which they say reveals not only where problems are concentrated but also where reforms might be focused.

“Segmenting graduation rates by district showed that a large portion of the problem is concentrated in large, urban districts, and this helps give policymakers an idea of where to target reforms,” Winters said.

Greg Forster, senior fellow and director of research at the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis–a former colleague of Greene and Winters–believes the abysmal graduation rates in large districts are related to the lack of competition among schools.

“Big school districts don’t work because they create a local monopoly on schooling, and monopolies always provide lousy service,” Forster said. “Breaking up big districts has been shown to improve graduation rates, for the same reason that school choice improves outcomes at public schools: Competition works, and monopolies don’t.”

Boys Dropping Out Faster

According to Greene and Winters’ findings, “none of the nation’s 10 largest school systems, which over 8 percent of U.S. public school children attend, graduates more than 60 percent of its students.” The minority and gender gaps hold up in this segment, as well.

“The extreme dropout rate of high school boys is one of our most urgent problems,” Forster said. “The key thing to understand about high school boys is that they’re human beings. Every one is different; there is no educational silver bullet that will work for all of them. That’s why voucher schools in Milwaukee have graduation rates almost 30 points higher than the public schools: Voucher students can each find the right individual school with the right approach for that student.”

Forster cited Milwaukee as an example of a city that has implemented a school choice program that broke the public school monopoly. He noted that in 2003, private schools in the city’s voucher program graduated 64 percent of their students, compared with a 36 percent graduation rate in the Milwaukee Public Schools system.

Common Sense Needed

Winters believes the research team’s method, which utilizes enrollment and diploma counts, is solid if simple.

“We used official enrollment and diploma counts given to the United States Department of Education, and we made a slight adjustment to accommodate population changes–in essence, we divide the number of diplomas on record for 2003 by the number of students we estimate could have graduated that year,” Winters explained.

Winters said attendance and diploma counts are executed by schools consistently and competently, but tracking what they do not know, such as dropout rates, is much more difficult.

“States try to count dropouts, but it’s frankly a very difficult figure to find,” Winters said. “Even the United States Census [Bureau], whose sole job is to count people, struggles to do so. For a school, this is beyond their capabilities. It’s easier to say that a student transferred or moved away, [which makes] figures cloudy. On the other hand, schools take attendance every day, and therefore this is a pretty reliable figure to work from.”

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer living in New Mexico. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, DC.

For more information …

“Leaving Boys Behind: Public High School Graduation Rates” can be found online at