Tennessee sees astounding improvement in high school graduation rate

Tennessee and New York state share an admirable academic distinction: Both saw double-digit increases from 2002 to 2009 in the percentage of high school students who earn a diploma within four years.

During that time period, Tennessee's graduation rate climbed from an abysmal 59.6 percent to 77.4 percent. That improvement also means our state's graduation rate is now above the nationwide average of 75 percent.

Those aren't just interesting statistics. They represent dramatically improved life and career prospects for many young people. On average, a high school graduate will earn about $130,000 more throughout his life than a high school dropout will earn. Graduates also contribute to the tax base and consume less government spending throughout their lives.

That is not to say that Tennessee or our country as a whole has reached the "right" percentage of high school graduates. Nationwide, from 2002 to 2010, the number of high schools considered "dropout factories" -- those from which 40 percent or more of students fail to graduate on time -- decreased by more than 450. That's good news. But there are still almost 1,600 "dropout factories" around the country.

And only Wisconsin has reached the 90 percent graduation mark. It is estimated that Tennesseans could see a nearly $90 million increase in annual earnings and that the state could enjoy $16 million more in tax revenue if we could reach the 90 percent graduation benchmark.

A bit of caution is in order, however. In the quest to improve graduation rates, schools should not be pressured to keep in their classrooms students who are violent or who are so consistently disruptive that they prevent other students from learning.

Fortunately, those students represent a small percentage of all students, and Tennessee's 17.8 percent graduation rate increase from 2002 to 2009 is clearly encouraging. But we should view it not as the pinnacle of achievement but as only a down payment on the greater academic progress we want for all students.