WASHINGTON — The Education Department announced Monday that the high school graduation rate reached an all-time high in 2015, crediting President Barack Obama’s $4 billion Race to the Top school reform program and nearly $6 billion pre-school initiative. But some education experts and researchers say his policies may have nothing to do with the 83.2 percent graduation rate.
According to the White House, 83.2 percent of students who were freshmen four years earlier graduated from high school in 2015 — every subgroup took significant strides, with black students and English learners making the greatest improvement.
“This represents progress for the vision the president laid out when he first entered office,” said Education Secretary John King.
In 2009, then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan instituted Race to the Top, which promised large grants for states that removed limits on the number of charter schools allowed, overhauled low-performing schools and created new methods to evaluate teachers based on student standardized test scores, among other measures.
The Obama administration also awarded $1.75 billion in grants to help states expand preschool programs and $4 billion to Head Start, the federal government’s 50-year-old flagship early education program.
But while high school graduation rates have risen under Obama, a leading education expert says it’s not clear that the growth was related to any of the administration’s policies. With the exception of the school years beginning in 2005 and 2006, the graduation rate has risen every year since 1999, according to the Education Week Research Center, and the rate grew more from 2006 to 2008 in the Bush presidency than in any two-year interval under Obama.
Elaine Weiss, an education researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, which promotes improving education for lower-income children and is associated with the AFL-CIO, authored a 2013 report that found Race to The Top was failing because it provided inadequate funding to fulfill outsized demands and pushed policies that didn’t address the root causes inequity.
“Our schools are actually pretty good and our schools have been consistently improving,” Weiss said, dismissing the administration’s impact.
She also noted that Congress has not approved funding to continue the program, meaning many of the state initiatives may disappear in the future.
King pointed to the Washington, D.C. school system as a leading success story for Race to the Top. The historically struggling district received $75 million in funding and had a high school graduation rate of 68.5 percent last year, a seven percentage point increase from 2014. No state has recorded that large a year-to-year increase since 2010, when the department began tracking graduation rates using the current method.
But Weiss said Race to the Top had a devastating impact on Washington, driving schools to use standardized tests for teacher evaluations, a method education experts and statisticians blasted as ineffective.
“Now there’s a big move to pull back those policies in other places because there’s increasingly broad recognition that not only don’t they work but they’re invalid and unreliable,” she said.
White House Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz also praised the Washington school system, saying it led the country in percentage of students in preschool. Under Obama, the White House has given $5.75 billion for early childhood education nationwide, and the president has pressed for a national preschool program in each of the last three State of the Union addresses.
Experts say there is little evidence for the effectiveness for preschool programs. Multiple major studies in the last 10 years have found scant evidence that pre-K, including Head Start , leads to improved academic performance past early elementary school.
In a 2015 study, Vanderbilt University researcher Dale Farran found that students admitted to Tennessee’s free pre-K program actually did worse in school than their peers. Calling for the government to fund more comparative studies to determine the best programs, Farren offered a critique she said applies for all education policy.
“We need to evaluate the money we are putting into these programs to see if they are achieving what we want from them,” Farran said.