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More American Students Are Graduating Because High School Is Getting Less Boring

Lessons on technology and social skills are keeping kids engaged and in the classroom.

This October, President Obama announced to much fanfare that America's high school graduation rate has reached an all-time high—83.2 percent for the 2014-2015 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.

This was the cherry on top of five years of consecutive growth that also includes a big leap forward for minority groups, such a African American students (a 7.6 percent increase) and Native Americans (a 6.6 percent increase). The president took that chance to tout some of his education initiatives such as investing in preschool education and a push to connect classrooms to broadband internet.

While these initiatives may have helped, education experts are still pondering why the graduation rate has increased. Could it be teaching the real-world skill of coding in classrooms? Or engaging group learning that solves world problems? How much did social and emotional learning where students are taught about self-awareness, relationships, and human decency have an impact? However you slice it, it seems like teachers are making school less boring, potentially keeping kids in classrooms long enough to graduate.

"Students are using Snapchat and Instagram, so there is the ability to create something that relates much more to life after school than anything else." —Hadi Partovi

"There is a whole bunch of things going on simultaneously," said Laura Hamilton, a senior behavioral scientist from RAND Education, part of the policy think tank RAND Corporation. "It is hard to say which of these might be responsible for the rise in graduation rates, but together this stuff does seem to be working to some degree."

Hamilton pointed to classrooms with project-based learning, where, for example, math and literacy instruction is packaged in a real-world problem for students to solve as a group. Students might spend an afternoon using Pythagoras's theorem to find the distance between their avatar and an enemy in a computer game, rather than memorizing an equation on a blackboard.

"Students are using Snapchat and Instagram, so there is the ability to create something that relates much more to life after school than anything else," said Hadi Partovi, the CEO of Code.org, a nonprofit that brings computer science and coding into schools.

Code.org provides computer science course curriculum for students from elementary to high school age. In the one-year course for high schoolers, students use HTML to build their own web pages from scratch, and develop basic games and animation through a repeat cycle of design, testing, and debugging. So far, about 2,000 schools have incorporated this course and more than 2 million students have been reached across all Code.org courses, according to Hadi.

The Code.org programs have been around for three years, which isn't long enough to say how it might impact graduation rates. But a survey from Change the Equation, an education nonprofit with founding members from the executive ranks of Intel, Xerox, and ExxonMobil, put computer science as the third most enjoyed subject, behind graphic arts and performing arts. "This class [computer science] is not only more fun and engaging," said Partovi. "Students can immediately see how it can help them develop a high-paying career."

Technology has also enabled some schools to flip classroom learning on its head. "Flipped learning" or "flipped classrooms" are where students view a lecture at home, often a video from their teacher, and then go into class to workshop what has historically been considered homework. This allows them to learn at their own pace at home; then, when they apply what they've learned in an engaging classroom setting, there is a teacher on hand to help.

One Michigan school that experimented with flipped classrooms in 2010 saw student fail rate drop from 30 percent to 10 percent, according to a New York Times article.

"Whenever I had a problem on the homework, I couldn't do anything about it at home," one senior student, Luwayne Harris, told the New York Times. "Now if I have a problem with a video, I can just rewind and watch it over and over again."

It's hard to say how much flipped classrooms affect learning or graduation rates. One 2013 survey of research on flipping found that anecdotal evidence showed student learning did improve, but recommended further studies. Limitations like uneven access to technology in the home also complicate the bigger picture.

Of course, all this—technology's integration into school learning—would not be possible without the internet in classrooms. One of President Obama's initiatives, ConnectED, sought to bridge 99 percent of students to high-speed internet by 2018. So far, 20 million students have broadband internet in their classrooms.

Another initiative, Next Generation High Schools, tied together private and public innovation and funding. One of the partners, computer giant IBM, helped develop a New York City high school that went from grade nine to 14. At the school, called P-Tech, students graduate with an associate's degree in either computer systems technology or electromechanical engineering technology with a prime position to enter IBM's workforce.

It isn't just new technology that's keeping kids engaged, but an added focus on what humans have valued since the dawn of time—problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, persistence, and how to maintain relationships. Teaching these skills and traits comes under the banner of social and emotional learning.

"These skills have always been important in the development of children, but we've gained a lot of knowledge in the last ten years or so that indicates that these skills matter in school," said Emma Garcia, an education economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that evaluates the economic impact of policy ideas.

The contribution that social and emotional learning has made to high school graduation isn't completely known, but Garcia says evidence does suggest a connection. She pointed to a study that compared those who completed high school and those who dropped out and later received a GED. Both groups had similar cognitive skills—what you use to think, read and write—but the group that completed high school displayed greater non-cognitive skills, such as perseverance. ("Non-cognitive skills" is another term for social and emotional learning.)

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is one of the nonprofits helping students develop these skills. CASEL works with schools and districts to integrate social and emotional learning into a student's day. This can include explicit lessons on a range of skills like the importance of listening and communicating in relationships. In one lesson filmed on video, students from the Oakland Unified School District, which works with CASEL, practice conversations with prepared questions on an everyday subject.

"What did you do on the weekend?" one of the students asks the other. The two then proceed to talk about shopping and a track meet. While mastering a good conversation might seem too basic for a sixth-grade class, Hamilton argued "a lot of students are not in the kind of environments in the home or in the community that foster the development of those skills."

Lessons can also be less obvious and folded into every moment of school life. Melissa Schlinger, a vice president at CASEL, stressed the importance of school climate. For example, students soak up a lesson in managing relationships just by observing how a teacher interacts with say, the custodian or the bus driver.

"You can imagine that you are in a school where there is a deliberate focus on building relationships, that is obviously going to go a long way just getting kids to attend," Schlinger said.

Looking forward to 2017, researchers like Hamilton are looking for the data to back their suspicions of what is causing the increase in high school graduation rates. She called social and emotional learning a "hot issue" among researchers and funders. But under the new administration, it's unclear whether the trend toward more wired, engaged classrooms will persist.

"Of course the specific policy changes that might be enacted are unknown," said Hamilton, "so I think we'll have to wait to see what happens."

Follow Serena Solomon on Twitter.