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.

Photo Illustration: Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye/Newscom
A report released Tuesday has good news for those working at improving the graduation rate in America's schools. The number of 'dropout factory' high schools – those graduating 60 percent or less of their students – is dropping.

The number of “dropout factories” is dropping.

A report released Tuesday has good news for those working at improving the graduation rate in America's schools – an effort that has received significant attention only for the past decade or so.

The number of “dropout factory” high schools – those graduating 60 percent or less of their students – was 1,634 in 2009, according to the report, released by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center. This is down from 1,746 in 2008, and from a high of 2,007 in 2002.

“There are reasons for optimism,” says John Bridgeland, chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, noting that the attention paid to the dropout problem has led states to agree to use a single calculation of graduation rates starting this fall, and that a number of districts and states are seeing their efforts pay off with big improvements. “I think what’s different here is that we have a concrete plan of action,” he says.

The report, “Building a Grad Nation,” is an annual update on an effort launched a year ago by America’s Promise Alliance, founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma. The resulting plan to end the dropout crisis by 2020, dubbed the Civic Marshall Plan, has established benchmarks to hit along the way – from improving attendance and establishing early-warning and intervention systems to increasing the number of mentors and the number of students reading on grade level by the beginning of fifth grade. It’s working in concert with even more pointed efforts to target the worst schools, like the federal government’s $4 billion school improvement fund.

So far, Mr. Bridgeland sees signs that the effort is on track. He’s particularly encouraged by improvement in rural areas and the West, both of which had previously seemed resistant to change, and by the degree to which the improvement rate seems to be accelerating. A few places, like Baltimore and Cincinnati, have also made impressive strides on narrowing the graduation rate gap between African-American and white students.

Still, he and others note that many challenges remain, given the deep and complex roots of the dropout problem.

Some 2.1 million high school students still attend dropout factories, according to the report. While research shows that one of the most effective tools for dropout prevention is an early-warning system to identify the 10 to 15 percent of students most at risk of dropping out – based on factors such as attendance, grades, and performance – coupled with interventions for those students, relatively few states have implemented such systems. Those that have, says Bridgeland, often don’t start until students are in ninth grade – which he considers too late to do much.

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.

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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