As someone who has worked in education since 1973 as a teacher, school superintendent, state commissioner, and having led high school reform grant deployment at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it’s frustrating to see new data proclaiming that the U.S. high school graduation rate has reached a 35-year high of 78.2 percent. While it is certainly a step in the right direction that this figure jumped 2.7 percentage points from 2009 to 2010, according to a study released last month by the National Center for Education Statistics, a graduation rate of 78.2 percent hardly seems like something to celebrate.
Massachusetts, which has a rate above the average at 82.6 percent, still has a long way to go before all of its high school students earn their diplomas. According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. once had the highest graduation rates of any developed country, but it has slipped down the ranks to 22 out of 27. America, the land of opportunity and innovation, can’t put hope for the future in an outdated educational system that lags behind its international peers. How can we change these statistics? How can we engage our high school students, decrease the dropout rate and ensure our students complete their high school education?
While there’s no silver bullet to the dropout crisis, there are steps we can take to increase the high school graduation rate. Most importantly, we need to value learning outside the traditional classroom along with self-learning. Digital learning tools work to engage students by playing to their schedules and strengths, offering them the freedom to choose the subjects and study times that appeal to and work for them the most. It may seem odd to propose online learning as a means of preventing high school students from dropping out, but a study conducted for the Department of Education found, on average, students completing some or all coursework online outperformed those who were only being educated in the traditional classroom setting.
Why might this be the case, and why might online learning be a viable alternative for high school students considering dropping out? Online learning has two advantages over a traditional classroom-based approach: it is personalized and flexible.
Penn Foster High School, the largest high school system in the country, advocates this personalized approach for our students, who are in need of a more customized education to engage them in the learning process. Our students range from a parent who hasn’t taken classes in decades to an at-risk high school student, so the one-size-fits-all model used by traditional education institutions does not apply. Instead, students learn at their own pace, through ongoing learning dashboards and readiness assessments, ensuring all students have the tools necessary to succeed not just in school, but in life.
Delivering a curriculum online allows the teacher to do the highest value add interventions. What does this mean? Instead of delivering lessons, teachers can spend time coaching students, helping them solve complex challenges and giving them the support they need to continue with their programs.
Another advantage is the user-defined pace. The student can go as quickly as they want based on how comfortable they are with the material. That means that if they are more focused one day and get through more content, they are rewarded. And if another day is more challenging, they can slow down. Students can also ask questions of their instructors and peers at any time of the day or night, and they don’t have to worry about being judged by their peers when they ask these questions, as they might in a traditional classroom setting.
Critics of online learning may claim that students need hands-on instruction to succeed and, in turn, graduate. But schools like Penn Foster have hybrid education solutions that help students learn how to be successful in learning through a combination of print-based and computer-based modules. By taking practicums while also completing online coursework, these students enjoy a combination of flexible online instruction and hands-on learning. While they may not be in the classroom full-time, the support network for these students is still strong. They have access to qualified instructors and mentors, as well as like-minded students, who are more than willing to help out those who are new to this education model.
Let’s be clear, online learning is not a solution for everyone and it alone is not enough to help end the high school dropout crisis, but it can, and should, be part of the solution. The more models we have for learning—from traditional, to all forms of blended, to fully online—the better chance we have of helping all students achieve their dreams. We can then hope the U.S. high school graduation rate rises and the U.S. achieves a higher standing among the world’s education leaders. At the same time, we have to look beyond the race to be on top. If we have the ability to provide all individuals with the education they need to ensure that their futures are bright, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Ray McNulty is the chief learning officer at Penn Foster.