What to Do About ‘Dropout Factories’

By Catherine Gewertz — October 02, 2009 2 min read
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The problem of high school “dropout factories” has been getting a particularly intense spotlight courtesy of President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. More people are talking about how to turn around those and other low-performing schools.

While the right strategies will be crucial in solving the problem, money and accountability have key roles to play as well. A new brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education highlights the role money plays in perpetuating the status quo at the 2,000 or so high schools that produce half of the country’s dropouts. To wit:

“Dropout factories are largely left out of school improvement efforts under [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] for two major reasons. First, many of these schools are not eligible for funds under Title I of ESEA, which triggers schools’ participation in the accountability and improvement system. Only 61 percent of dropout factories are eligible for—and, many analysts believe, even fewer actually receive—these funds, which are designed to give extra support to high-need schools.”

Even if they do get Title I funds and so must participate in the accountability system, the brief notes, many dropout factories will escape such scrutiny because their graduation rates don’t play a major role in determining AYP. In 2004-05, the brief notes, four in 10 dropout factories made AYP.

The alliance calls for federal policies that would better align money and accountability with the goals of high school improvement. They include creating a separate stream of funding aimed at dropout factories, and making sure that a reauthorized ESEA incorporates new rules that require high schools to be judged by how many freshmen graduate in four years, and the graduation rates of specific subgroups.

Some of these ideas are already moving ahead in federal legislation, such as the Graduation Promise Act, which was reintroduced recently.

(See the alliance’s list of pending federal legislation pertinent to high school here.)

Other groups advocating for reform at the high school level, such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals, have also pushed for more Title I money for high schools. The idea showed up in President Obama’s proposed fiscal 2010 budget, too.

All the talk could portend a banner year for high school reform on Capitol Hill. Or not. How optimistic are you that substantive changes in money streams, accountability, and school improvement strategy will come about?

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.