Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dissecting Graduation Rates: Achievement Gaps in Georgia’s Schools

By Matthew Tarleton, Senior Manager, Research and Projects.

Good news from our home state last week: Georgia’s graduation rate increased by 1.8 percentage points between 2012 and 2013. The bad news: the state is probably still in the bottom five in terms of high school graduation. Although all states have yet to report graduation rates for 2013, last year the state’s graduation rate only exceeded that of Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and the District of Columbia.

Clearly Georgia still has a long way to go. This is no surprise, and not the focus of this blog entry.

Rather, I want to focus on something positive underlying the overall graduation rate and its increase from 2012 to 2013. Data from the Georgia Department of Education show that much of the improvement in the state’s graduation rate can be attributed to a reduction in achievement gaps between white students and minorities.

Education has long been referred to as “the great equalizer.” There is an abundance of evidence showing the relationship between education attainment and income. There is also an abundance of evidence showing the relationship between education and a variety of other outcomes that we expend tremendous government resources attempting to address: health outcomes, crime, and unemployment among them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for a high school dropout was $24,492 in 2011 as compared to $33,904 for a high school graduate. The unemployment rate for dropouts in the same year was 14.1% as compared to 9.4% for graduates. According to the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network (NDPC/N), a dropout will earn roughly $200,000 less than a graduate in their lifetime. Meanwhile, 82% of prisoners in the United States are high school dropouts. Given the influence of educational attainment, closing the achievement gap may have the single greatest impact on a variety of observed racial/ethnic disparities in such outcomes.

So what exactly happened in Georgia between 2012 and 2013? In 2012, the achievement gap between white students (graduation rate of 78.0%) and black students (61.8%) stood at 16.2%. This was the 27th largest achievement gap among 47 states with comparable data. In 2013, that gap declined to 14.6% as black students experienced more significant improvements in their graduation rates (+2.5%) relative to their white counterparts (+0.9%). The achievement gap between white students and Hispanic students also declined. In 2012, the state’s white-Hispanic achievement gap of 18.2% was the 38th largest achievement gap out of the same aforementioned 47 states. Between 2012 and 2013, the white-Hispanic achievement gap contracted by 2.6 percentage points to 16.5%. Only seven states in the country have a larger minority population as a share of all residents (in other words, only seven have a smaller non-Hispanic white population as a share of all residents). Given its relatively large minority population, continued reductions in achievement gaps can have a tremendous impact on raising the state’s graduation rate relative to its peers.

Researchers have studied the factors that contribute to achievement gaps for decades, with a wide variety of explanations emerging. Some point to underlying differences in socioeconomics for different races and ethnicities, with socioeconomic disadvantages potentially reflecting comparatively limited access to educational resources. Higher rates of single-parent households among blacks and Hispanics have also emerged as a common explanation, with such rates reflecting less time for parental involvement. This issue is compounded for many English Language Learners who not only start at a lower level of English language knowledge but also may lack English-speaking parents at home that are capable of helping students with homework. Other studies have pointed out reinforcing factors that compound the problem over time; low-performing school districts may attract less qualified educators and depress home prices, creating a cycle that exacerbates existing problems. There are many other explanations, both environmental and structural, but there does seem to be consensus that achievement gaps measured by test scores emerge at very early ages, emphasizing the importance of early childhood education and equal access to such early education.

While some state policies can have a significant impact on achievement gaps – perhaps most notably the investment in and promotion of equal access to early childhood education – much of the improvement that we see in statewide outcomes are a result of efforts implemented at the local level. We are frequently working with communities to identify appropriate programs, policies, and initiatives that can support these goals, in Georgia and nationwide. Using the same data from the Georgia Department of Education, I wanted to examine how some of client communities have performed in recent years. Having worked in nearly 20 communities throughout the state, an exhaustive analysis would make for a mighty long blog post. So at the risk of being accused of playing favorites, I am just going to focus on a few here.

We are currently working in Macon-Bibb, where the Bibb County School System has been characterized by a graduation rate near 50% in recent years. In 2012, just 52.3% of students graduated. The data released last week showed a tremendous improvement: the graduation rate rose by 8.8 percentage points to 61.1%. The achievement gap between blacks and whites in the district declined from 13.8 percentage points to 8.6 percentage points. This is an impressive improvement and one that the community will hopefully sustain through hard work and commitment. You can see our research findings and view the community’s “One Macon!” strategy in full when it is released next month by visiting the project website. Without question, there will be a heavy emphasis on improving student outcomes; residents identified low graduation rates as the community’s greatest challenge.

We have also completed work in a number of Metro Atlanta communities in recent years, including but not limited to Cobb and Gwinnett Counties. Achievement gaps between white and black students, and white and Hispanic students, have declined substantially in both communities.

Down in Columbus-Muscogee, the graduation rate for all students surged by 5.3 percentage points from 67.5% to 72.8%, bringing the system above the statewide average. The white-Hispanic achievement gap has improved, but the white-black achievement gap has widened despite a strong surge in the black graduation rate (3.7 percentage points) that simply failed to keep pace with an even larger surge in the white graduation rate (6.4 percentage points).

While there are some great success stories across the state, there hasn’t been much for the entire state to applaud in terms of education for quite some time. Make no mistake – Georgians should not be proud of a statewide graduation rate of 71.5%. But we can find some comfort in knowing that observed improvement sin graduation rates this year have come largely from improvements in reducing our achievement gaps.

And of course, if you are a Georgia community and interested in knowing how your district(s) performed in recent years, give us a call.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


By J. Mac Holladay, founder and CEO.

I remember it like it was yesterday when we took the ferry to Robben Island. In 2008, we went to Africa for the first time. In Capetown, I knew that we wanted to see the prison where Mandela and so many others were held for so long. Mandela’s clan name was Madiva, but he was known by the name his first teacher gave him. She called him Nelson. Then, we knew only a small amount about the history of the nation. We knew nothing about Robben Island.

Now we do. It had been a leper colony before it was a prison. The island is a bleak place with a white limestone mine in the middle. All the prisoners were required to work there. Their eyes were not protected as sunglasses were not allowed and many went nearly blind. It was back breaking, monotonous work.

The prison itself was a stark and cold place. All the cells were 8 feet by 7 feet. A mat on the floor served as the bed. There was a small window with bars for the only light. All of the guides on Robben Island are former prisoners, ours was named Kgosto. As with most, he was convicted of treason.

In all of my wildest dreams, I can not imagine being caged there in one place for over 20 years. Mandela read, he studied, he thought, and he prepared all those years for what was to come. A chance to move his country, and this world, forward in a way no one imagined.

As Bishop Tutu made clear in his great book No Future without Forgiveness, South Africa faced enormous challenges. The way forward was by no means assured. So Mandela walks out after 27 years of confinement and says – “We are all South Africans” and then he proved it every day as the country’s first elected President. In his inaugural address in May 9, 1994 he said “Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

One of our rich experiences in Capetown was to eat dinner at a home, now a small restaurant in Langa Township, which was not too long ago a ghetto where no whites could go. The owner’s name is Shelia who raised her family there and, since there are no mortgages in South Africa, had built her home one room at a time. This is economic development at the core.

Yes, there is yet much to do in South Africa, but it has come so far that none of us in America can even understand where it was and what Mandela meant to everyone there.

I have been fortunate to travel the world, no place has ever affected me like South Africa. Mandela is the reason. He was a man really beyond description, a giant of a man, and one that all of us in this work have been blessed by his leadership and his love of country and its people – all of them. What a lesson to learn. Thank you, Madiva.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Film: Beyond Job Creation

By Jonathan Miller, Project Associate. 

I have written a couple blog posts on the film industry and focused on the efficacy of incentives. It is difficult to see a definitive correlation between incentives and the multiplier effect for both jobs and earnings. However, Georgia has fully embraced the film and entertainment sector through its incentive policy, and unlike other states, such as North Carolina, the incentives law does not have a sunset provision. The sunset provision in North Carolina (incentives terminate at the end of 2014) is already impacting the business. According to a film producer, “Films and shows that are being planned 18 and 24 months out are not looking at North Carolina because they don't know what is going to happen 18 months from now.” The certainty of the incentives in Georgia is supportive of local investments in film infrastructure, and it’s pretty incredible to witness.

I recently toured Fayette County and had the opportunity to drive over to Senoia, Georgia. Located adjacent to Peachtree City, Senoia is where most notably the TV show “The Walking Dead” is filmed. The filming activity and the popularity of the show has given rise to a cottage tourism industry complete with walking tours, trolley tours, and smartphone applications. Perhaps the most noticeable effect of the filming presence is the investment that has been made in the downtown area. Senoia Enterprises, a development company with close ties to Raleigh Studios, has rehabbed many of the buildings and stores on Main Street and created a charming streetscape that is used as a back lot for production. New homes are also being built with the look and feel of brownstones so they can be used for recreating scenes that take place in New York City, Chicago, or Philadelphia. Other homes have the feel of Savannah and Charleston. Such follow-on investment increases the visibility of the industry and has truly revolutionized Senoia.

I give this example to provide another glimpse into the film and entertainment sector to highlight the positive economic development effects that are not captured by job creation figures. Pinewood Studios, a well-known British studio company, is building a large studio complex in Fayette County (the property was annexed into Fayetteville in March). The studio has already booked a large budget production and will begin filming in January. The studio will not only have sound stages, but there will be an onsite Home Depot that will provide lumber and hardware to production companies at Pinewood and also other nearby studios (such as Senoia and Tyler Perry’s studio in Atlanta. The sales tax that will be generated from the endeavor will flow to the local jurisdictions, augmenting local budgets. The Pinewood facility will also have an educational component so that productions will have access to a skilled workforce. Again, it’s these “extras” that embody the ongoing impact of such projects.

Much of the argument against film incentives revolves around the transiency of both the filming process and the film workforce. From an economic development perspective the goal is to capture as much local investment and job creation as possible. Tying film production to your geography is the critical element as it works to sustain local investment. In Senoia, the investment in downtown sustains a relationship between the town, fans, and the studio. In Fayette County, the campus setting for not only production, but vendors and training as well, adds to the long-term value that the investment will bring to the community. While tax incentives may create the environment for being competitive for film, it’s often the fixed investment that will pay off in the long run.