A plan to fix 'dropout factories'

More students will stay if school is harder, safer, and more relevant.

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Many communities across the nation have just received alarming news – one or more of their high schools fit the profile of a "dropout factory." That means two decades after the seminal report, "A Nation at Risk," jolted the nation to its educational crisis, America can claim almost no progress in raising high school graduation rates.

In many communities, the initial reaction to the latest report card has been denial and even anger. But now is the time for a focus on real solutions, not labels. In a human-capital century, Americans can no longer look the other way. Instead, they must realize why students leave school and use proven strategies to lower the dropout rate now.

In more than 1,700 schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia, less than two-thirds, and often fewer than half, of students graduate year after year, according to federal data recently analyzed by Johns Hopkins University. Half of all dropouts and two-thirds of minority-student dropouts are concentrated in 12 percent of America's high schools. Even heroic teachers and resilient students are finding themselves outmatched by the challenges they face in under-supported schools in high-poverty urban neighborhoods and rural counties.

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The consequences of dropping out of school are catastrophic. Dropouts are more likely than their graduating peers to be unemployed, living in poverty, receiving public assistance, in prison, on death row, unhealthy, divorced, and single parents with children who drop out. Dropping out is not just a personal or economic issue; it also undermines the fabric of society. High school dropouts are almost completely missing from the civic lives of their communities. US taxpayers would save $45 billion a year if the number of high school dropouts were cut in half by increased tax revenues and reduced social costs.

A powerful force aims to engineer this massive savings and solve the dropout crisis by listening to and heeding their advice. A broad coalition of educators and business and community groups – including America's Promise Alliance, State Farm, the National Education Association, US Chamber of Commerce, and leading civil rights groups are supporting a 10-point plan and spearheading 100 dropout summits in all 50 states.

Surveys of dropouts, research on proven solutions, and action in some communities paint a hopeful picture. The overwhelming number of dropouts surveyed in the report, "The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts," recognized that graduating is vital to their success. They told us they would have stayed on track to graduate if school had been more relevant, challenging, and supportive of their needs. They point the way toward reform – improved teaching and parental involvement to make school more engaging, a safe and orderly environment, stronger support for struggling students, and schools expecting them to graduate. The What Works Clearinghouse has also identified effective dropout-prevention strategies that meet the highest standards of scientific evidence.

Communities from small towns to large cities are waking up to what works to prevent dropouts. In 2006, a Time cover story made Shelbyville, Ind., the symbol for "Dropout Nation." Educators there responded by providing more accurate data, an alternative school, and a credit recovery program for failing students, parents, and other adults who ensure students get the support they need. In New York City, graduation rates increased to 79 percent in smaller, more college-focused high schools that were opened to replace schools with graduation rates as low as 31 percent.

In a hopeful burst of bipartisanship in Congress, Senators Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina, and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, and Rep. George Miller (D) of California have crafted legislation that provides needed support to fuel innovation and reform to help more students stay on track to graduate in every state.

The Bush administration announced new policies to increase graduation rates in addition to test scores and has put a billion dollars in its proposed 2008 budget to support proven reforms in low-performing high schools.

And the Bill & Melinda Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations have launched a "Strong American Schools" initiative to keep issues relevant to the dropout epidemic – such as teacher quality, rigorous standards, and extra learning supports – a priority for the 2008 presidential candidates.

Eli Flores from South Los Angeles recently asked why no one cared that he and his friends were dropping out. Schools that might resist labels such as "dropout factory" should answer Eli's question with an urgent supply of caring that engages the entire community.

The facts are too overwhelming to ignore. America needs no less than a Civic Marshall Plan to move from a dropout nation to a graduation nation.

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