Special Report

Opening Doors

By Lynn Olson — June 19, 2006 17 min read
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“The really good news about this,” says Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, “is that you can use data that’s on hand. It’s like blocking and tackling in football.”

Experts offer this advice:

Feature Stories
The Down Staircase
Adding It All Up
Opening Doors

A Road Map to State Graduation Policies

Student Profiles
About This Report
Table of Contents

Build an early-warning data system. One of the most important things states and school districts can do, Balfanz and others say, is to build a strong electronic data system that tracks individual students over time so that educators can identify when and why students start to drift away from school.

“Knowing which students are at greatest risk for dropping out and which schools most exacerbate the problem is the first step to reducing dropout rates,” Craig D. Jerald, an independent consultant, notes in a paper prepared for Achieve Inc., a Washington-based group formed by governors and business leaders that works for better student preparation for college and careers.

While there are 15 to 20 indicators that districts might consider tracking, from attendance rates to course failures, Jerald writes, a district would be well advised to conduct an individual study of several cohorts of students from grade 6 through graduation to see which ones have the most predictive power for the community.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research, for example, has devised an “on track” indicator that has proved 85 percent successful in predicting which 9th graders will fail to graduate on time from Chicago public high schools.

Students are counted as on track at the end of freshman year if they have accumulated five full course credits—the number needed to be promoted to grade 10 in the district—and have no more than one semester F in the core subjects of English, mathematics, science, and social studies.

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But schools don’t have to wait for districts to provide them with information they can use, says Elaine M. Allensworth, the co-director of the consortium. “They can look at students’ midsemester grades. That’s a great indicator of whether the kids are going to graduate or not.”

And they can aggressively monitor attendance rates to intervene quickly when students are missing classes, since absenteeism is the strongest predictor of course failure.

“If you come to school, if you pass your courses, if you stay out of trouble, you’ll be OK,” says Balfanz. “And schools collect data on all those things routinely. It’s more getting them to understand that if you fail the first quarter in 9th grade, absent intervention, it’s not going to get better on its own.”

One way that states could support powerful uses of student data, suggests Adria Steinberg, an associate vice president at the Boston-based Jobs for the Future, in another paper prepared for Achieve, is by requiring districts and high schools identified as low-performing to conduct more fine-grained analyses of data as part of their improvement plans. States also can help by providing resources and investing in statewide longitudinal-data systems.

Start sooner rather than later. Dropping out is often a gradual phenomenon, with warning signs apparent as far back as elementary school.

For that reason, experts advocate starting early to identify and help students at risk of not graduating. Studies in Philadelphia have found half of those who eventually fail to graduate can be identified as early as 6th grade.

Philadelphia now mandates 120 hours of instructional intervention for any student who is falling behind academically, beginning in 1st grade.

“In effect, you’ve come up with an individualized education plan to help get that kid to grade level,” says Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer for the 185,000-student school district.

Under a pilot program begun in 10 middle schools last year, Philadelphia students who are two or three years behind grade level in grade 6, and at least two years older than their peers, receive instruction in the core academic subjects in self-contained classrooms with about 15 students, a teacher, and a teacher’s aide, as well as more-individualized social services and after-school and extended-day learning opportunities. The district hopes to expand the program to all remaining middle schools and half of its K-8 schools in the 2006-07 school year.

An intervention model developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, known as Check & Connect, assigns “monitors” to small groups of middle school students at risk of dropping out. The monitors keep daily track of whether youngsters are disengaging from school (based on such indicators as tardiness, absenteeism, behavioral referrals, and academic performance), meet with students individually each week, and communicate with family and school staff members about each youngster’s progress. They also design individualized supports that can range from transportation to links with community services.

An evaluation followed two cohorts of 7th graders with learning and emotional disabilities for whom the intervention was originally designed. The researchers found that at the end of 9th grade, significantly more students in the treatment group than in the control group were enrolled in school (91 percent vs. 70 percent) and were on track to graduate (68 percent vs. 29 percent). The model has been replicated with elementary and secondary school students with promising results.

Other research has found that participation in a high-quality early-childhood program increases the likelihood a youngster will go on to graduate from high school.

“I hate to say part of your solution to the dropout problem begins in preschool,” says Vallas, whose district enrolls 50 percent more children in its early-childhood programs today than three years ago, “but it does.”

Focus on transitions. Districts and schools also should consider targeting interventions to students in the transitions to middle and high school, the points at which many students begin to have difficulties.

There’s growing recognition that 9th grade, in particular, is a critical juncture. The dramatic increase in school size and complexity; the number of classes, teachers, and peers with which students have to interact; the increasing independence expected of students; and the heightened academic demands placed on them all pose big challenges for many young people.

The Chicago consortium found that even students who entered freshman year with above-average test scores could end up off track by the end of 9th grade.

“This becomes the largest leak in the educational pipeline,” says James J. Kemple, the director of K-12 education policy at the New York City-based MDRC, a nonprofit research group, “so it becomes incumbent on high schools to place interventions right in close proximity to the problem.”

The Talent Development High School model, a whole-school design, includes Ninth Grade Success Academies. Those are self-contained schools-within-a-school in which groups of 9th graders share the same classes and teachers. The schools use block scheduling to reduce the number of classes that freshmen take, and provide specialized courses to help ease the transition to high-school-level work. An ongoing evaluation of the model, by Kemple and his colleagues, has found strong effects in improved attendance rates, academic course credits earned, and rates of promotion to 10th grade.

Provide extra help. Once districts have better longitudinal data, they can use the information to provide extra help for individual students and groups of youngsters who share a particular risk factor, such as being significantly behind in grade level, Jerald, the Washington consultant, points out.

One approach is to provide “catch up” courses for students who start high school struggling academically or who fail a course early in high school. The Ninth Grade Success Academies provide double course offerings in English and math. In the first semester, students take courses designed to help with “strategic” reading and the transition to advanced mathematics; in the second semester, they move into regular, college-preparatory courses so they do not fall behind in earning the credits needed to graduate.

“It allows students to take a transitional course without having to compromise their transcripts, so that they have the credits they need to get promoted out of the 9th grade into the 10th grade,” Kemple explains. “If you’re not successful at being promoted out of the 9th grade on time, your prospects of being able to get back on track to graduate after four years, or even five, are cut in half or even two-thirds.”

America’s Choice, a whole-school-design model based in Washington, also has developed courses for students who start high school far below grade level, known as Ramp-Up to Algebra I and Ramp-Up to Literacy.

Philadelphia and other districts now provide double doses of math and language arts for freshmen who enter high school below grade level, although critics worry that the approach may reduce the time students have available for other core subjects and for such electives as art and music.

Districts such as Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia also have instituted transitional or accelerated high schools for students who enter 9thgrade significantly over-age and undercredited. The smaller, more personalized high schools give students a chance to catch up in a more flexible setting.

The Boston school system changed its promotion policy at the high school level in the 2005-06 school year, so that a student who failed a course as a freshman would not have to repeat the entire grade. Instead, the 59,000-student district has moved toward an ungraded system in high schools.

“What we did is try to create more flexibility,” says Deputy Superintendent Chris Coxon, so that it would be easier for students to recover course credits in some subjects while still moving ahead in others.

Redesign high schools. A dramatic increase in graduation rates, though, may require rethinking the design of high schools and remaking or closing down schools that are not serving students well. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University estimate there are between 900 and 1,000 high schools in the country in which graduating is at best a 50-50 proposition.

“We know that one of the main sources of dropouts are the ‘dropout factories’ that we’ve identified,” says Balfanz. He argues that some low-performing schools—up to 15 percent of them—are simply beyond repair. “You do need to break those schools up and start over again,” he says.

Twenty-five states have policies to replace the staffs at low-performing schools, 10 have policies allowing school closure, 13 permit schools to be closed and reopened as charter schools, and 14 allow turning schools over to private management. But so far, few states have made use of the more drastic options available to them.

“For the most part,” writes Steinberg of Jobs for the Future, “they do not create competitive-grant programs for new high school designs or models, cultivate turn-around leaders, create capacity at the state level to provide assistance to schools, identify potential school developers or operators, or create a viable process for reopening schools as charters.”

The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York have invested in helping districts redesign high schools to provide students with a broader array of learning options, including new small schools.

Many districts are betting that their core high school improvement strategies—including districtwide curricula and professional development for teachers, more periodic student assessments, the provision of better data to schools and classrooms, and the creation of smaller, more engaging, more personalized learning communities—will eventually pay off in higher graduation rates.

Studies have found that high schools with smaller enrollments, better interpersonal relationships between students and adults, teachers who are more supportive of students, and a focused and rigorous curriculum post lower dropout rates. States and districts can create space for such innovations through such avenues as charter school laws, special initiatives or grant programs, and alternative-schools legislation, says Steinberg.

Create multiple pathways to graduation. School systems that have dug into their data have also discovered that students may fail to graduate for a range of reasons that require districts to target their interventions for different groups of young people.

When the New York City Department of Education unpacked data on its students, it learned that it had two distinct groups of over-age, undercredited students: many who had earned few if any high school credits, and many 17- to 20-year-olds who were much closer to graduation—sometimes only a few credits shy—but had other, adult responsibilities that made it hard to finish school.

The analysis led the district to put money into several new programs, including Young Adult Borough Centers, which offer day and evening classes and highly intensive support services for older students who are part way to graduation; “transfer schools,” small, academically rigorous schools for students who have left school or are more than a year off track because of truancy or academic failure; and Learning to Work Centers, launched under a mayoral initiative, which are often located with the other two programs, but provide additional youth- and career-development supports.

“What you get a picture of is, the population is no longer just ‘dropouts’ or ‘kids at high risk for dropping out,’ ” says Michele Cahill, the senior counselor for education policy to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. “You see that there are some students who over the course of four years get 32 credits of the 44 needed to graduate, and other students who have only eight credits. They’re in very different situations. But who are they, and what do they need?

“It’s really keeping the standards,” Cahill says, “but then figuring out what kind of school or school-linked programs you need to help the students move forward, and being very intentional about it and engaging them on how you’re going to get from here to there.”

Warns Jerald in his study for Achieve: “In large urban districts where risk factors are pervasive and more than half of the student population drops out, individual interventions and even aggressive institutional reforms might not be enough to adequately address the problem. Such systems might need to invest in large-scale, systemwide strategies as well, such as creating multiple institutional and noninstitutional pathways to obtaining a diploma and a portfolio of flexible, second-chance options for students who have already dropped out.”

Coordinate services. Students at risk of dropping out and those who have already

left often have a host of needs, beyond academics, and may have come to the attention of multiple-service providers.

“We need to really work hard on coordination and out-of-school services and activities, because a lot of these kids have problems that, by their nature, cannot be solved inside the four walls of school,” says Gary Orfield, the director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

The 2003 White House Task Force Report on Disadvantaged Youth recommended greater coordination among federal agencies administering youth programs to make collaboration easier at the local level. But Steinberg says that, so far, most such efforts have depended on innovative partnerships and individuals willing to bend the rules or otherwise go around existing structures.

Portland, Ore., has been particularly effective in crafting a range of options for young people who are not thriving in traditional high schools, including many who have already dropped out. Oregon law permits districts to contract with a range of community-based alternative education providers, with the money following the student. School districts receive 100 percent of the state’s per-pupil aid, but then pay the provider 80 percent of that amount or the provider’s actual costs, whichever is lower.

The 47,650-student Portland school district now works with 22 community-based programs that are run by nonprofit organizations, but that have agreed to common goals and outcome measures determined in collaboration with the district. In the 2003-04 school year, the programs served 2,232 students—including 1,900 out-of-school youths who increased the district’s enrollment by 14 percent.

Carole Smith, the district’s director of alternative education, says the programs are able to leverage crucial dollars—such as workforce-development and housing and community-development funds—for support services that would otherwise be unavailable. An analysis of seven such programs for the 2003-04 school year found that the Portland district contributed 28 percent of their budgets, while the rest came from other city, county, state, federal, and foundation sources.

“So you’ve got a whole lot of partners coming to the table,” says Smith.

In Boston, a Youth Transitions Task Force, comprising some 30 partnering organizations, released a report in April of this year that details what it has learned about the scope of the dropout problem in its community and what changes in services, systems, and policies are needed across multiple-service providers.

Similarly, a report released earlier this year by the American Youth Policy Forum, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, argues that “recovery and reconnection must become a top priority of public school districts.”

Titled “Whatever It Takes: How 12 Communities Are Reconnecting Out-of-School Youth,” the forum’s study found that effective dropout-recovery programs are comprehensive, youth-centered, flexible, intentional, pragmatic, and include extensive follow-up after graduation. It notes that many of the characteristics prevalent in such programs could also be adopted by school systems to keep students in school in the first place. Those include providing satisfying student relationships with adults, low student-to-staff ratios, hands-on contextualized learning, high expectations, clear rules, and flexibility to recover lost credits or accelerate learning.

Strengthen accountability systems. If raising graduation rates is to become a more urgent priority for schools, policy experts say, accountability systems should reflect that fact—along with the current emphasis on raising achievement.

Yet under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states can propose varied methods for calculating graduation rates and adopt minimal improvement targets. Poor data quality at the state and district levels further erodes the potential to use graduation rates as part of accountability systems.

The nation’s governors made a commitment to improve the situation in December 2005, when they signed a compact to devise better data systems and a consistent method for measuring high school graduation rates. (See “Adding It All Up,” this issue.)

But advocacy groups have also called on the U.S. Department of Education to more strictly enforce the federal law. The Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, for example, recommends that states be required to use a more uniform measure of graduation rates until they have longitudinal-data systems in place, and that the federal government require improvements in graduation rates among subgroups of students for a school or district to meet annual performance targets.

“What we don’t want is something really shortsighted and counterproductive, by saying we’re going to have a 100 percent graduation rate within four or five years,” warns Orfield of the Civil Rights Project. “We want to have something that’s within the realm of reasonable possibility.”

Accountability systems also may have to be modified so that schools enrolling a large proportion of students who start significantly below grade level are not punished for failing to meet absolute achievement targets, says Steinberg of Jobs for the Future.

“It’s very important to have some way of measuring growth, so as not to discourage schools that are starting with young people who are very far behind,” she argues. The federal government’s approval in May of two states, North Carolina and Tennessee, to use “growth models” in showing student-performance gains under the NCLB law is one step in that direction.

States also might consider increasing the compulsory-attendance age to make it harder for young people to leave school.

The fact is, when it comes to boosting graduation rates, “we have to work on all fronts at once,” says Cahill of New York City.

“You have to have high expectations for graduation and postsecondary enrollment,” she says. “But you also have to have strategies and targets for students who’ve gotten off track to graduate. They have to be intentional, they have to be plausible, and they have to be customized.”

“There’s just tons of basic ways that you can intervene on this,” agrees Orfield of Harvard.

“And my basic perspective is we’re not investing in any of them in a very serious way.”


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