Patterns for Improving Graduation Rates: Lessons from Ten Years of Experience in Gateway Cities

Haverhill’s relative standing in school performance among Gateway Cities has been slipping. But what do we know about the cities that are doing better? If Haverhill wants to improve its graduation rates it can look for examples in other cities that have recently improved their graduation rates.

Gateway Cities with Graduation Rates Similar to Haverhill in 2006

As reported in data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) for 2006, 11 of the 26 Massachusetts Gateway Cities had graduation rates (four-year cohort adjusted) within 5 percentage points of Haverhill’s at 77.0 percent. By focusing on these particular Gateway cities we exclude cities such as Quincy, which already had a much higher graduation rate in 2006, and Lawrence that started with a much lower rate and showed substantial improvement under receivership. Despite a similar start, the experience of these 11 cities diverged over the ensuing decade. By 2016, six of these cities had improved their graduation rate by more than 10 percentage points, four had improved rates by 5 to 10 percentage points, and one (besides Haverhill) had improved less than 5 percentage points. In this post I look at DESE data to see what distinguishes the top performers from those at the bottom.

For this report I have divided these 11 cities into three group based on improvement from 2006 to 2016. The most improved group, which includes Attleboro, Pittsfield, Revere, Salem, Taunton, and Worcester, started with an average graduation rate in 2006 of 75.2 percent. The middle group includes Brockton, Fitchburg, Leominster, Lynn, Malden, and Westfield with an average graduation rate in 2006 of 76.9 percent. The lowest group includes just one city, Lowell, with a graduation rate in 2006 of 79.0%.

Overall Trends

In the graph below, we can see Haverhill’s graduation rate ended the decade where it started while all of the other groups improved, with the highest performers averaging an improvement of 12 percentage points over ten years, starting 2 points below Haverhill and finishing 10 points above. Clearly improvement is possible for Gateway Cities with graduation rates similar to Haverhill.

Low-Income Students

For low income students, we see substantially greater improvement in graduation rates in this period when federal and state program were targeted to low income students. Haverhill’s rate for low-income students improved by 6 percentage points, but the most-improved group improved their graduation rates for low income students by 20 percentage points. It should be noted that the number of low-income students in Haverhill’s high school cohort increased by 122 percent in this period, no doubt putting a strain on the schools to address the needs of this group. But the number increased in other cities as well, and even at the end of the period, the percent of students classified as low income in Haverhill (60%) was not greater than the percentage in the most-improved cities (75%).

Hispanic Students

The most improved among the Gateway Cities whose 2006 graduation rates were similar to Haverhill showed marked improvement in graduation rates for Hispanic students – 22 percentage points, from 67% to 89%. This group also showed a 103% increase in Hispanic enrollment in this period. This suggests that success with the growing number of Hispanic students is an important part of the overall improvement among the top performers. This contrasts with Haverhill, which showed a drop in graduation rates for Hispanic students to 61% in 2016, down from 71% in 2006.

Student/Teacher Ratios

Another measure of resources is the student/teacher ratio. Here we need to shift our thinking a bit as the higher the student/teacher ratio the lower the resources per student. We do not see dramatic differences among the graduation-improvement groups. In all three groups, the number of students per teacher increased somewhat, but the increase was smaller for those most improved (an additional 0.5 student per teacher) compared with the middle and least improved groups (with more than 1 additional student per teacher). Haverhill actually decreased the number of students per teacher and ended with only 0.4 more students per teacher than average for the most improved. This suggests that Haverhill’s under-performance on graduation rates from 2006 to 2016 s is not attributable to its somewhat higher student /teacher ratios.

Teacher Salaries

The chart below suggest that higher teacher salaries have not been the driver of graduation rate improvements. Among Gateway cities with graduation rates similar to Haverhill in 2006, the most improved group ended in 2015 with teacher salaries lower than the middle-improved group. Haverhill, however, become an outlier in teacher salaries in this period, starting in the middle and ending well below the average of the other groups. So, while salary levels do not explain the variation in improvement for these cities as a whole, we cannot rule out markedly lower salaries as a possible barrier to improvement for Haverhill.

Per Pupil Spending

The most improved group also supported their schools with greater increases in per-pupil spending. Haverhill started the period somewhat below the others and by 2015 was spending substantially less per pupil.

Summing Up

The chart below shows the changes in key measures by improvement group.

So what have we learned from this look at improvements in graduation rates over ten years? Among the 11 Gateway Cites starting in 2006 with graduation rates similar to Haverhill, the most improved districts:

  • Were able to improve graduation rates by 12 percentage points overall
  • Showed even greater improvements for low-income (20 percentage points) and Hispanic (22 percentage points) students than other students
  • Had notably greater increases in per pupil spending, exceeding the middle group by 11 percentage points over 10 years
  • Increased average teacher salaries only slightly more than others – by 2% over 10 years
  • Allowed student/teacher ratios to increase slightly less than the other groups

In contrast, Haverhill:

  • Improved graduation rates by less than 1%
  • Showed a 6 percentage point improvement in graduation rates for low-income students, but saw a 10 percentage point drop in graduation rates for Hispanic students
  • Started with per pupil spending 4% below the most improved group and slipped to 13% below this group in per pupil spending by 2016
  • Increased average teacher salaries substantially less than the most-improved, ending the period 9 percent below the most improved group and 11 percent below the other cities in our analysis
  • Reduced its student/teacher ratio slightly


What Haverhill has been doing has not been working to increase graduation rates as other Massachusetts cities have done. The results for the most-improved of the Gateway cities with 2006 graduation rates similar to Haverhill show that Haverhill has missed an opportunity for school improvement. That opportunity need not be missed going forward. We can learn from the experiences of others.

The results of the past decade suggest a possible path to improvement: focus less on student/teacher ratios and more on providing adequate resources (as reflected in per-pupil spending) and find ways to better meet the needs of low-income and Hispanic students. This may mean investing in more supporting resources to help our teachers better serve a changing student population. Other cities have shown how this can be done. Adapting their methods to Haverhill’s particular situation can be expected to produce meaningful improvements in graduation rates and greatly benefit our city for this and the next generation.