Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 02/15/2011

Why Obama’s 2020 graduation goal isn’t attainable

By Valerie Strauss

President Obama has set this as a goal by 2020: That all adult Americans would have committed to at least one year of higher education or career training and America would have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Setting aside the issue of whether you think his K-12 reforms will be any help toward that goal (any even casual reader of this blog knows that I don’t), there is a numbers game working against the realization of his goal.

And his newly released proposed education budget for 2012 isn’t going to help him get there.

The issue was raised in a recent report called “Building a Grad Nation,” (issued by Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and America’s Promise Alliance).

The report is actually something of a roadmap for reform that, if followed, would presumably lead to Obama’s goal, set in his 2009 State of the Union Address, coming true.

According to the report, the country would need a 90 percent high school graduation by 2020 to meet Obama’s goal. To do that, you’d need 600,000 more high school diplomas in the class of 2020 (assuming constant population growth) than we had in 2008.

And to do this, we’d have to:
*substantially increase the number of struggling students reading at grade level by 5th grade
*reduce chronic absenteeism
*conduct needs and capacity assessments of targeted schools.

The benchmarks for 2013, the report says, include:
*early warning and intervention systems in every targeted school district and state
*re-design of middle grades as necessary to foster high student engagement and preparation for rigorous high school courses
*the placement of a trained non-profit school success mentor for every 15-20 students with off-track indicators.

The benchmarks for 2016, the report says, include:
*transforming or replacing the nation’s dropout factories and providing transition supports for struggling students in grades 8-10 in all schools with graduation rates below 75 percent
*providing all students (including those who have dropped out) with clear pathways from high school to career training and college; and the compulsory school age being raised to 18 in all states.

Now let's consider the goal from the grade-level reading perspective: The class of 2020 is in 3rd grade right now. And the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that as many as two-thirds of the class of 2018 are not proficient in reading.

A child who doesn't read by the end of third grade is far less likely to graduate from high school -- much less attend college -- than a child who does. A 2010 study of Chicago students found that fewer than 20 percent of students who were below grade level in third grade attended college, compared to about a third of students who were at grade level, and nearly 60 percent of students who were reading above grade level.

It would take some sort of miracle to turn around that cohort of kids. Don’t count on it.

If there is any chance to ever reach Obama's goal, the country will have to pay serious attention to what happens to kids -- especially the 23 percent who live in poverty -- before they get to third grade.

Parents have to start talking and reading to their kids; research shows that the more words parents use when speaking to an 8-month-old infant, the greater the size of their child’s vocabulary at age 3. A study on language development showed that children living in poverty hear as many as 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers before the age of 4.

But more is required. Daycare providers need to be equipped to help develop literacy skills. We need high-quality pre-kindergarten programs for all kids. Curriculum and instruction has to be top-notch, kids have to show up for school and, somehow, keep reading during the summer so they don’t fall behind.

The importance of reading by the end of third grade has sparked more than 70 foundations to join together in a new campaign called “The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.”

The aim is to bring together public and philanthropic efforts to close the gap in reading achievement and to lobby so that grade-level reading by the end of third grade becomes an explicit priority for educators, policymakers, civic leaders, parents and advocates.

It’s something of a shame that Obama’s proposed 2012 budget didn’t make reading a priority. Instead the president and his education secretary continue their K-12 priorities of the past: standardized tests, charter schools, competitive funding.

Some experts say that the goal can't be met without more older adults enrolling in college. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the percentage of 25- to 49-year-olds without college degrees who are enrolled in college has been declining slightly since 1990, when 8.1 percent of such adults were pursuing a degree; only 6.5 percent of that group are now enrolled in college. But increasing this cohort is probably going to require new federal aid, and in this budget-cutting environment, that's not going to happen.

The Grad Nation report says that reform efforts have produced an increase in the national graduation rate; it increased from 72 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2008. But it also says this:

"The pace is too slow to meet the national goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020. We must calibrate our educational system to the greater demands of the 21st century through a Civic Marshall Plan to make more accelerated progress in boosting student achievement, high school graduation rates, and college- and career-readiness for our nation to meet national goals and fulfill the promise of the next generation.”

That sounds right. But judging from our education policy, that’s not going to happen.

Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | February 15, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  High School, Higher Education  | Tags:  2012 budget, 2020, early literacy, graduation 2020, obama, obama 2020 goal, obama budget, reading by 3rd grade  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The problem(s) with Obama’s 2012 education budget
Next: How to avoid college scholarship and aid scams


The President has come to expect when he says something it will come true. When elected he stood on hope and change. Hope and change was all he offered and people bought it.

Obama was in many a pundit corner and held up as a banner in a public forum as if he had all the answers. He would embrace the Black community (haven't see that) while bridging the gap with whites (haven't seen that.) He would somehow stir the brew in his castiron pot and once drank, employers would hire, money would appear without backing, and rainbows would fill the sky.

The President surrounded himself with idealist and patrons. If Manny Moe and Jack bobble heads were in the office it would be no worse. He has offended nearly everyone while trying to be all things to everyone.

As I said previously, he tries to get his arms around everything while embracing nothing.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 15, 2011 7:19 AM | Report abuse

The pace is too slow to meet the national goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020.
33 percent failure on 2009 national test of 4th grade reading.

New test to graduate high school to meet goal of President.

2+2 equals?

What is the color or the apple in following sentence?
The apple is red.

But of course the President will be well out of office by 2020.

I prefer the claims of old politicians that promised the goal of a chicken in every pot. None of these added on the condition that the chicken in the pot would not arrive until they were 2 years out of office.

I once took a sales seminar from a top salesman. He advised that the real skill in selling was not to crack up laughing with the spiel that you made to a buyer.

The President has certainly mastered this skill.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 15, 2011 11:39 AM | Report abuse

the pot would not arrive until they were 2 years out of office.
I see my math is wrong and that it is 4 years out of office and not 2 years.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 15, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Or we could just keep lowering the requirements for graduation until it's true.

Posted by: someguy100 | February 15, 2011 3:44 PM | Report abuse

It's also nonsensical to expect the U.S. to aim for having the highest percentage of college graduates due to pure economics. A college education is a staggering expense in this country (my own son's will retail for a projected $236,000), while in many/most/some other developed nations, it's free. And with a weaker social safety net, all those years of lost income are far harder to manage too.

Posted by: CarolineSF | February 15, 2011 11:24 PM | Report abuse

The elephant in the room that no one wants to address is that, to achieve high-levels of literacy early on, young children require one-on-one attention from an engaged and committed adult. Children must be held, comforted, played with, talked to, read to, and presented with an intellectually stimulating environment. Day-care providers are seldom qualified for this task, and even if they were, their attention must be spread out between too many children. Many youngsters spend the majority of their days dumped in front of a TV. Or their schedules are so regimented that there is no room for spontaneous play and learning. As long as vast numbers of children are neglected by parents either too busy or too poor to attend to their educational development, we will continue to fall behind.

Posted by: lutzena | February 16, 2011 9:34 AM | Report abuse

More access to books means more reading, more reading for personal interest and pleasure means more literacy development.
Why are those concerned about literacy allergic to LIBRARIES, the only source of books for many children of poverty.

Posted by: skrashen | February 16, 2011 12:51 PM | Report abuse

You can't have literacy if you don't have books...and children living in poverty don't have books if LIBRARIES are being closed in both their public schools and in their communities. Obama's budget proposal will eliminate needed funding for school libraries that provide books for our children. Administrators are cutting out (what they "think" are) non-essential professionals--librarians!!?? These professionals are teaching today's information literacy skills (life skills for critical thinking) AND they are providing reading guidance, as well as instruction to our nation's children.

You can't meet the educational goals set, if you eliminate the means by which our children might achieve them. Fund libraries and promote the retention of your school librarian---children who can read, succeed!

Posted by: sbrisco | February 16, 2011 6:14 PM | Report abuse

The solutions are simple, the research is strong: strong school libraries [those staffed with a credentialed librarian and support staff] positively affect student achievement. The more we read, the better readers we become. Give our children books, time to read them, an environment to talk about them and the professional to help them find just the right one. Support strong school libraries for ALL our children.

Posted by: chwms | February 16, 2011 11:01 PM | Report abuse

Imagine what a weekly visit to the school library would do for a child living in poverty (20%+ of our school population). Listening to a story, selecting books to take home, learning about the world, using a computer to find answers, and interacting with a caring adult who focuses 100% on the child's reading support would only be the beginning for a child who has a school library staffed by a capable professional librarian. We can't afford NOT to fund them.

Posted by: agallagher1 | February 19, 2011 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company