December 6, 2010

U.S. sees significant decline in number of ‘dropout factories’

A report released last week by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises and Johns Hopkins’ Everyone Graduates Center provides some of the first positive signs that America is making progress in reducing a nationwide crisis in the number of students who drop out of high school. The number of high schools where 40 percent or more of the students fail to graduate fell significantly from 2002 to 2008, according to analysis of the most recent government data.

Nationwide, the number of “dropout factory” high schools fell by 13 percent, from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008. While these schools represent a small fraction of all public high schools in America, they account for about half of all high school dropouts each year. Experts say that targeting these high schools for improvement is a critical part of turning around the nation’s dropout rate.

“Public schools are showing improvement thanks to reforms and other efforts that have been put in place, but we need to dramatically increase the pace of progress,” said Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education. “No principal, school board, teachers union or mayor can resolve a community’s dropout crisis alone. It takes everyone working together to make progress every year and build on success.”

Education leaders say that the new report, “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic,” shows that progress is possible, even among schools in lower income, urban and rural districts that many previously thought hopeless. The report was written by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center and was released by retired Gen. Colin Powell, founding chair of America’s Promise Alliance, and Alma J. Powell, the Alliance’s current chair.

In March of this year, with the support of President Barack Obama and Secretary Duncan, the Alliance and its more than 450 national partners launched Grad Nation, a multiyear campaign to mobilize Americans to end the national dropout crisis.

“America still faces a dropout crisis, but this report shows why there is reason to be hopeful,” said Marguerite Kondracke, president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance. “Certain communities have made big progress in a short time, and they can share their lessons with others. But the major discovery in the report is that when administrators, teachers, community officials, state governments, parents and business leaders work together, schools can be transformed.”

Earlier this year, Obama and Duncan called for 90 percent of students to graduate from high school and complete at least one year of post-secondary education or training by 2020. Nationwide, the graduation rate increased from 72 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2008.

“States and communities that made breakthrough progress serve as a challenge to those that have not improved,” said Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center, part of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins. “While 400,000 fewer students are attending dropout factory schools, 2.2 million students are still in these schools.”

Other findings of the report released Nov. 30 include:

• Most of the decline in dropout factory high schools—216 of the 261—occurred in the South. In Texas, the number dropped by 77. Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee all dropped by 20 or more schools. Tennessee and Texas saw a decline in the number of dropout factories across all locales—cities, suburbs, towns and rural areas—indicating that improvement is possible in any type of community.

• Twenty-two states had a decline of dropout factory high schools in urban areas, led by Texas, New York, Louisiana, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

• Tennessee and New York led the nation by boosting graduation rates 15 and 10 percentage points, respectively. Ten additional states, including Alabama, had gains larger than the national average, ranging from about four to seven percentage points.

• Twenty-nine states increased statewide graduation rates substantially from 2002 to 2008. Only Arizona, Utah and Nevada lost ground in the percentage of high school students graduating from 2002 to 2008. The graduation rate held fairly steady in the remaining 18 states.

The report highlights four case studies of success—Tennessee; Alabama; Richmond, Ind.; and New York City—whose common elements include strong leadership with clear graduation rate goals; multisector collaboration guided by data; commitment to innovation and continuous improvement; technical assistance for evidence-based solutions; and raising expectations, improving policies and increasing student supports.

Just as Secretary of State George C. Marshall launched a plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, a Civic Marshall Plan—an idea developed earlier this year as a result of a roundtable hosted by the Pearson Foundation—has been adopted to transform the lowest performing schools in the country’s education system. To that end, the Alliance, Civic Enterprises, Everyone Graduates Center and a council of leading organizations last week announced significant commitments to develop and advance the Civic Marshall Plan to build a Grad Nation. In March, a progress report to the nation will be issued.

“Ending the dropout crisis is within reach,” said John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises. “We now know why students drop out and what can keep them on track. With better data and accountability across schools and states, the spread of early warning systems, unprecedented federal support to transform dropout factories, and nonprofits mobilizing more boots on the ground to support students, we can keep more young people on the path to success.”

Researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data of the National Center for Education Statistics. Researchers used two indicators to determine students’ progress through high school: the averaged freshman graduation rate and promoting power, both calculated from grade-level enrollment numbers and, in the case of the averaged freshman graduation rate, district-level data on the number of diplomas awarded.

The report’s lead sponsor is Target, along with sponsorship from AT&T and Pearson Foundation.