The curious case of improving graduation rates

Two recent studies on education point to some good news: after years of decline, high school graduation rates are improving. The first study came last November, on a Pew Research poll that points out that not only record number of students are completing high school, but also college enrollment and graduation rates are on an all time high.  The second one came out this week from Richard Murnane at Harvard, showing that high school graduation rates are on levels not seen since the 1970s, or even above.  Even better, the improvement is centered in minorities:


blog_high_school_graduation_ratesThe improvement was particularly sharp among blacks and Hispanics. For instance, in 2000, 61.2% of black men between 20 and 24 had finished high school; in 2010, 72.0% of black men in that age bracket had.

What we don´t know for sure, however, is the reason behind this trend. The bad economy could have certainly helped; with less job opportunities outside school, kids are less likely to drop out to work on construction or other low-skill jobs.

Matthew Yglesias, however, has an often forgotten hypothesis: lead - as in leaded gasoline or lead paint.  The idea comes from a (great) article from Kevin Drum pointing out how lead environmental pollution has been linked to the rise and fall of crime rates in America. Drum himself, however, is not entirely sure that the numbers quite fit on this case, as they seem to be off by a few years. I probably do buy the crime-lead link (read Drum´s article!) but for school performance it might be a stretch.


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