Academic performance in middle school and the early high school years are critical turning points in whether students ultimately graduate from high school, yet a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education reveals that federal funding largely ignores these years of a child’s education. In fact, this “missing middle” in federal education funding leaves middle and high schools receiving tens of billions of dollars less than early education and postsecondary education, according to Never Too Late: Why ESEA Must Fill the Missing Middle.
“The federal government has made strong, worthwhile investments in the bookends of education—early education and postsecondary education—but it missed the middle,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Investments in the early grades and postsecondary education should be maintained, but to ensure these investments receive the greatest returns and translate into more students graduating from high school, the federal government must devote more attention to middle and high schools as it works to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind.”
Over the last few years, the U.S. high school graduation rate has risen to an all-time high, but much more work remains. Large gaps in graduation rates remain as white students continue to graduate at much higher rates than low-income students and students of color. Additionally, more than 1,200 high school graduate less than 67 percent of their students. More federal support is necessary to address these challenges, but federal funding for middle and high schools has actually decreased during this time.
As shown in the graph below taken from the report, the federal government spends $26 billion on education programs serving children from birth through grade five and $31.1 billion on postsecondary education programs; programs serving middle and high school students receive only $5.6 billion.
Never Too Late cites research and successful district and school reform efforts showing that targeted support for low-performing high schools can make a significant difference in increasing graduation rates and improving student performance. For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s High School Graduation Initiative, which was eliminated in 2015, helped the Mobile County Public School System in Alabama implement a middle and high school dropout prevention, intervention, and recovery initiative that increased the high school graduation rate for participating students by 7 percentage points in just two years.
“Federal funding for high school programs has stagnated, decreased, and even been eliminated through the years despite the successes that have resulted from federally funded efforts,” the report notes. “The United States cannot continue to make progress toward ensuring that every student graduates from high school without supporting successful evidence-based reform in low-performing high schools.”
The current congressional effort to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind, provides an opportunity to accelerate gains made in the overall national high school graduation rate and increase graduation rates for low-income students, students of color, and other traditionally disadvantaged subgroups of students. Specifically, the report calls on the U.S. Congress to
- implement evidence-based comprehensive reform among high schools that fail to graduate one-third or more of their students;
- require states to intervene in high schools with consistently low graduation rates among student subgroups;
- authorize funding for “next-generation high schools” that will implement new models for school turnaround in the lowest-performing schools, expose students to the workforce, and allow students to earn college credit while in high school; and
- maintain a specific funding stream dedicated to school turnaround and target funds toward low-graduation rate high schools.