CEO Blog: Putting an End to the Dropout Epidemic

For every effective business, data drives decision making from the cubicle to the boardroom. Without supporting data, new projects and products are not funded, people are not added, and marketplace conditions are not understood. This basic principle of American business is starting to take hold in American education.

As a result of better data in recent years, America has awakened to its dropout epidemic.


Research showed that about one-third of all public high school students and nearly one-half of minorities failed to graduate on time with their class.

Good data enabled researchers to pinpoint the 15 percent of schools where nearly 50 percent of students were dropping out. Researchers borrowed another business principle – “listen to the customer” – to share the perspectives of dropouts, showing the nation that most students wanted more academic challenge and could have graduated.

We supported more than 100 dropout prevention summits in all 50 states to raise awareness of the individual, social and economic costs of the dropout epidemic, prompting dropout prevention and recovery plans in many communities.

This work prompted businesses to support research that listened to the perspectives of teachers who are on the front lines of schools and parents whose engagement is critical to student academic achievement. Both efforts showed a good understanding among teachers and parents of the causes and cures of the dropout epidemic. Research also brought the perspectives of students, teachers and parents together to fashion solutions in their schools to keep more students on the graduation path.

After years of struggle to get better data and numerous reports on the severity of the dropout crisis, a report is being released today that shows significant progress in boosting high school graduation rates.

High school graduation rates have increased over the last decade. Tennessee and New York have led the way, with 15 and 10 percentage point gains from the Class of 2002 to the Class of 2008. The number of dropout factory high schools — those schools graduating 60 percent or fewer of their students — fell from a high of 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 such schools in 2008, a 13 percent decline in the very schools that produce about half of the nation’s dropouts every year. The data shows that 120,000 more students earned a diploma in the Class of 2008 than the Class of 2001.

As we would do in business, a deeper analysis shows most gains occurred across 9 southern states, led by Texas and Georgia with 77 and 36 fewer dropout factories. In addition to school districts that were boosting graduation rates, even statewide efforts showed their effects, such as those found in Tennessee, Texas, Alabama and Georgia, with improvements all across states – in suburbs, towns, cities and rural areas.

Significant challenges remain.

More than 2 million students still attend a high school in which graduating is about a 50/50 proposition. To meet the national challenge of 90 percent high school graduation rates for those in 3rd grade today, our nation will need to accelerate the pace of progress from a 3 percentage point gain over the last decade nationally to a 15 percentage point gain over the coming decade.

With good data and a strategic response, our nation can meet this goal and realize the potential for millions of young Americans. The plan focuses on the lowest performing high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools; puts in place early warning data systems that trigger prompt interventions; focuses on proficient reading, rigorous and engaging courses, and non-profit mentors and tutors who can support struggling students; bolsters principals, teachers and parents; and focuses intense supports on the transition years from middle to high school, to prepare a new generation for the rigors of college and a globally competitive workforce.

Business understands the urgency behind improving our system of education for all of our children. State Farm’s work with education, legislative and community partners focuses on assuring that our children are better prepared for college and the 21st century workforce, and ensuring that they are real participants in their own education as they work to transform communities through service-learning. Other companies such as AT&T and Target are also leading the way.

These efforts could not come a moment too soon. The skills gap in America is growing with only 45 million Americans today having the skills needed for 97 million jobs, a gap that is expected to grow over the next decade. By 2020, three-quarters of the job market will be high skilled, requiring not only a high school diploma, but also some post-secondary education.

Education for all Americans is an issue of global economic competitiveness. We must educate our way out of the skills gap. American businesses have a crucial role to play in meeting this challenge and ensuring the next generation of Americans is prepared to compete.

Edward B. Rust Jr. is CEO of State Farm. John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises. This week, they released with the Everyone Graduates Center and America’s Promise Alliance the report, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic found at and