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Cities in Crisis

Only about half of all students served by the main school systems in the nation's 50 largest cities graduate from high school. That's according to a new report from America's Promise Alliance: Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation.


In addition, the report says that graduation rates in urban schools are lower than those in nearby suburban communities, in some instances by more than 35 percentage points. 

The report analyzes school district data from the U.S. Department of Education's Common Core of Data (2003-04). The country's 50 largest cities were identified based on 2006 population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Cities in Crisis was prepared for the America's Promise Alliance by Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

Cities in Crisis uses a new measure of graduation and applies it to the U.S. Department of Education's Common Core of Data, limiting the analysis to school districts in the nation's 50 largest cities. The findings are not unexpected - using their measure, the author finds that graduation rates are exceedingly low. Graduation rates range from a high of 77.1 percent in Mesa, Arizona, to a low of 24.9 percent in Detroit, Michigan. Overall, the average graduation rate for these districts is 51.8 percent.

While the report is a valuable addition to what we know about high school graduation, three issues need to be raised:

1. Interpreting these and related findings as dropout rates.  One cannot subtract the graduation rate from 100 percent and suggest that the result is a dropout rate, because it leads to erroneous conclusions. For example, the calculation does not take into account that some students take five or even six years to graduate. 

2. The measure used in the report. The Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) uses aggregate data and does not track individual students over their high school career. Thus, some error is introduced into the calculations (one source of errors occurs when students move and enroll in a school in another city or state). The point is that increases or declines in the aggregate number of students is not accounted for by the formula.

3. The cities in which data were used for this report. In many cities the Promotion Index was quite low, suggesting a major problem in the educational processes in those cities. It should be pointed out, however, that these cities face many problems that affect schooling, such as high crime, poverty, and unemployment rates, and high proportions of single heads of families. For instance, children in poverty data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation show that in 2006 the percentage of children in poverty was 18 percent in the United States, 18 percent in the state of Michigan, and 44 percent in Detroit. Researchers and policymakers need to be sensitive to the entire environment surrounding students and their education. While the report brings to the forefront an important set of findings, one needs to be careful in how the findings are interpreted and used for driving policy.

Related Content


Children in Poverty in 2006 (By State) - Kids Count Data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Children in Poverty in 2006 (By City) - Kids Count Data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

America's Promise Alliance is an NEA partner in addressing the dropout problem.