John Gomperts, President and CEO, America’s Promise Alliance

John Gomperts, President and CEO, America’s Promise Alliance

According to Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic 2014 (112 pages, PDF), a report published in April by America's Promise Alliance and its partners, the four-year high school graduation rate in the United States reached 80 percent for the first time ever in 2012. But while the overall rate is on track to reach the 90 percent goal set by the alliance's Building a GradNation Campaign, the report notes the troubling persistence of achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color. In an effort to help address those gaps, America's Promise just released Don't Call Them Dropouts: Understanding the Experiences of Young Americans Who Leave High School Before Graduation (72 pages, PDF), which looks at the multiple factors that result in students in high-poverty communities leaving high school before they graduate.

PND spoke with John Gomperts, president and CEO of America's Promise Alliance, about the positive trendlines in graduation rates, the implications of the reports' findings, and what philanthropy can do to address the achievement gaps that remain. Before joining America’s Promise in 2012, Gomperts headed AmeriCorps, Civic Ventures, and Experience Corps.

Philanthropy News Digest: Building a Grad Nation notes that one of the factors in the steady rise in the U.S. high school graduation rate over the last decade is the significant improvement in African-American and Latino graduation rates. To what do you attribute those gains?

John Gomperts: We as a nation have seen an almost 10 percentage-point increase in high school graduation rates over about a decade, which is notable, because that means that an additional four hundred thousand young people are graduating every year than were graduating a decade ago. That's four hundred thousand young people who are on track to becoming successful adults, which is a huge thing for those young people, their families, their communities, and the nation. And, yes, we have seen impressive gains among African-American and Latino students. Those two groups had a long distance to travel, and that was one of the huge red flags for all of us who are concerned about young people and opportunity. But while graduation rates for African Americans and Latinos have improved over the last decade, they still graduate at  lower rates and there is more work to do.

To what do I attribute these gains? A couple of things. The first is a much greater awareness of the challenge. For a long time, people just assumed that everybody graduated from high school, or that it didn't matter. One of the big things that America's Promise and its partners set out to do was to help people understand that lots of kids are not graduating from high school, as well as the consequences of not graduating for those kids, their families, their communities, and the country.

Second, greater awareness of the problem led to much greater accountability at the school level, community level, family level, and national level, so that all of a sudden, with significant help from the federal government and from folks on the outside, people are now tracking graduation rates and holding institutions and individuals accountable for the outcomes.

Third, there is no question that targeted school reform has helped drive improvements in graduation rates. Those efforts come in a variety of forms: better teachers, better curriculum, longer school days, charter schools, teacher evaluations, and so on. In addition, a whole host of reforms have been targeted to the lowest-performing schools, and those have made a difference.

Fourth, we've learned a lot more about, and invested more heavily in, evidence-based interventions in schools and in communities. We've gotten smarter about what the real barriers are that prevent kids from staying and succeeding in school. Some of those things have to do with school, some of those things have to do with life, and I think many nonprofits have done a great job of working with local school districts and others to provide the kind of support that young people who are growing up in challenging circumstances need in order to flourish and thrive.

PND: As you noted, graduation rates for African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, while improving, continue to lag those of Asian Americans and whites. What's the most important thing we can do as a country to close those gaps?

JG: There are two really important things we can do. One is to keep our eye on the ball. We need to continue to pay attention to this issue, and if we decide we need to see better outcomes, then the next thing is to take action and make people accountable for those results. We need to be honest about why young people are deciding to leave school before they graduate. And we need to understand the challenges and choices young people face, so that, collectively, we can respond in a way that effectively meets those challenges.

To create the report Don't Call Them Dropouts, we asked kids what was going on in their lives and why they decided to leave school. I'm talking about teenagers, kids between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, who are making decisions about pretty consequential things. We know from other studies that people under a lot of stress don't always make the best choices. If we are to meet this challenge and to help young people, we really need to understand how the world looks from the perspective of a young African-American or Latino kid from a poor family. That's why we did the research and published Don't Call Them Dropouts — to bring the voice of young people to the conversation.

PND: There is concern in some quarters that the overall improvement in high school graduation rates has not translated into a higher percentage of kids who are ready for college. Do you share that concern? And what can we do to address it?

JG: We absolutely share that concern, but we use the high school graduation "marker" because we think it is a great indicator of whether young people are on a path to success as adults. We know that success in today's world often includes some form of postsecondary education, so if kids are getting worthless diplomas, that's not a good result. At the same time, it's worth noting that some of the places that are doing best in terms of raising high school graduation rates are also raising standards at the same time. So we don't see these goals as mutually exclusive.

A lot of this has to do with adults setting the right aspirations and creating the right supports so that young people can learn. The goal, again, is for young people to graduate and have a world of good choices and opportunity in front of them. That means graduating from high school with a diploma that means something. Yes, there’s controversy around the drive to create college- and career-ready standards, Common Core, and so forth. But the fact remains: We need great teachers and high standards. There shouldn’t be any controversy about wanting all kids to learn, to be challenged, to be developing thinking skills and behavior skills — the kind of analytic skills and soft skills that are so crucial in today's workplace.

PND: The Lumina Foundation, which supports the GradNation Campaign, recently published an annual study which indicates that its goal of having 60 percent of Americans earn a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2025 is within reach. Is a postsecondary certificate or degree a prerequisite for success in the global economy of the twenty-first century?

JG: I think all the evidence suggests that more and more jobs will require some form of postsecondary degree or certificate. There are certain skills and knowledge that people need today in order to compete in the domestic economy and for the U.S. to compete successfully in the global economy. We just had our Building a GradNation summit, and Jamie Merisotis [president of the Lumina Foundation] and I had a long conversation about this. We're looking at different instrumentalities, but our shared goal is that all young people have an opportunity to thrive and that our country benefits from young people who are able to contribute and participate as productive members of society.

PND: In the minds of many, the tradition of volunteerism in American life has lost a bit of its luster, as more and more people gravitate to cyberspace for entertainment, information, and community. As a former chief executive of organizations built on volunteers and the concept of volunteerism, does that trend concern you? And what can the social sector do to reverse it?

JG: It's a very interesting and important question. Many younger people have a tremendous amount of desire to participate in society and to make society better. But they might not see "volunteering" as the outlet, or they might not call what they do "volunteering." So I think there's a little bit of a semantic problem that is causing the situation to be interpreted incorrectly as a lack of engagement or a lack of caring.

The other piece of this is that we will not successfully meet the challenges we face, including the challenge of young people not completing high school, unless all hands are on deck. We need more people to be more involved in more ways in the lives of young people who are at risk, who are growing up in challenging circumstances, because through that involvement we are helping to create a context and a set of conditions in which every young person has an opportunity to succeed and thrive.

National service members, for instance, play an absolutely essential role in the campaign to increase high school graduation rates. Whether it's afterschool programs, or organizations like City Year or Citizen Schools, or the work that Jumpstart for Young Children or Experience Corps or Reading Partners do, national service efforts are making an invaluable contribution to the campaign.

In short, I think people are finding new ways and new vehicles to exert influence in their communities in a positive way, and those efforts are essential in meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century, because ultimately it is people, not programs, that have the greatest impact when it comes to helping other people, especially young people.

-- Kyoko Uchida