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Fewer US schools qualify as 'dropout factories'

'Dropout factories,' schools that graduate 60 percent or less of their students, fell to 1,634 in 2009, down from 2,007 in 2002, says a new report. Attention on the dropout problem has led to improvement, analysts say.

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Similarly, while more states are beginning to collect useful data showing how students progress over time, few have figured out the best ways to use it to improve instruction and prevent dropping out.

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The news in the report also varies from state to state, with some showing impressive improvement while others are moving in the wrong direction.

Six states – California, South Carolina, Illinois, North Carolina, Connecticut, and Tennessee – managed to reduce their number of dropout factories by 10 or more schools. Connecticut all but eliminated them, going from 14 such schools in 2008 to one in 2009. And Tennessee continued to shine: The previous report from the project, looking at data from 2002 to 2008, had also highlighted the state as making “breakthrough gains.”

Meanwhile, three states – Georgia, New York, and Ohio – moved in the opposite direction, adding at least five new dropout factory high schools.

The report highlights a number of districts – including Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Canton, Ohio – that have made gains by boring in on the dropout program. It also emphasizes the importance of community partners – like City Year, United Way, and Jobs for the Future – working with the schools and particularly with at-risk students.

“Schools can’t do it alone,” Bridgeland says.

It makes sense that all the efforts to target the dropout problem are starting to pay off, says Daniel Losen, senior education law and policy associate with the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. A lot of progress was made, he suggests, by just shining a light on the problem and by getting schools to stop doing some of the things that contributed to it: suspending students too often, pushing kids toward GED programs, or disenrolling problem kids.

Professor Losen says some of the apparent gains may be artificial – the result of districts “gaming the system” now that policymakers are starting to hold them accountable. But he believes that good progress is being made in many places.

Losen worries, though, that just as districts are discovering what works, many of the most successful programs may be cut as a result of strained federal and state budgets.

“The impact of the economy is not going to show up in this year’s graduation rates, but a few years down the line,” says Losen. “It’s frightening that at the point when we might be figuring out some things that are effective, we’re cutting the funds we need.”

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