Broader Approach to Dropouts Urged

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Lack of commitment, resources, and cooperation--not lack of knowledge--are hindering the search for solutions to the school-dropout problem, according to a report released here this week by the Institute for Educational Leadership Inc.

"There's no one institution or part of society that can solve the dropout problem,'' said Jacqueline Danzberger, co-author of the report and director of local improvement programs for the Washington-based research group.

"People need to focus on the child or youth in a consistent, longitudinal way,'' she said, "rather than on a piece here and a piece there.''

According to the report, "Dropouts in America: Enough Is Known for Action,'' to "reclaim the most severely damaged youngsters requires a long, costly, multidimensional response.''

"Successful treatment,'' it states, "may require psychological and social services, family support, individualized learning of basic skills at the student's pace, a measured and patient exposure to work, and ongoing social and vocational counseling while the youngster is on the job.''

"That's a large order,'' the report notes. "But this is a very big problem.''

The U.S. General Accounting Office has reported that, in 1985, 4.3 million youths between the ages of 16 and 24 dropped out of school--13 percent of the age group.

The cumulative cost of dropouts--in lost tax revenues, welfare and unemployment expenditures, and crime--reaches into the billions of dollars, according to the I.E.L. study.

Funded with a grant from the Exxon Education Foundation, the report summarizes existing research on what schools can do to help current and potential school dropouts. Andrew Hahn, assistant dean of the Heller School for Advanced Studies at Brandeis University, was co-author of the report, which was produced with the assistance of Bernard Lefkowitz, a freelance writer based in New York City.

Effective programs, the authors write, should focus on individual segments of the at-risk population, instead of viewing school dropouts as a homogeneous group. They should also pay more attention to such youngsters' lives outside school and work to build their self-confidence.

'Case Management'

At the heart of I.E.L.'s recommendations is a proposal to develop a "case management'' approach for potential and actual dropouts, starting at a young age.

Such a strategy would pull together an array of educational and noneducational services based on each youngster's needs--similar to the individualized education programs now required for handicapped children.

Ms. Danzberger argued that a case-management approach is needed for "consistency,'' and to ensure that children receive the appropriate services at the appropriate time.

Poor, minority, and high-risk children often fall through the cracks of existing education and social-service bureaucracies, she said, or receive intermittent and scattered assistance.

Services Corporation

The report recommends, for example, that elementary schools create special units charged with identifying the early warning signs of school failure in young children.

Case workers could then integrate education with other services--such as nutrition and health care--to help these youngsters.

Similarly, the report argues, effective prevention programs in high schools require a "cohesive, integrated effort'' that might combine counseling, social services, concentrated remedial assistance, year-round schooling, and increased parental involvement.

School-based health centers and infant-care centers, for example, could be particularly helpful in preventing teen-age parents from dropping out of school, it states, and should be established on a much wider basis in disadvantaged communities.

The authors also propose creating an "educational services corporation'' within each state, which would register, on a voluntary basis, all high-risk youths. This public, nonprofit organization would then design education and employment plans for each registrant, including periodic testing, assessment, and follow-up activities.

'Estranged' Youth

For those who have already dropped out, the report says, "conventional education and remediation isn't effective, by itself.'' It also maintains that work experience cannot be isolated from classroom skills.

Alternative schools are often the best available option for potential or actual dropouts, the report notes. But few school systems, it says, have such programs, and alternative schools are not very successful at reaching the most "estranged'' youngsters.

A study in New York City, for example, found that one in four adolescents in alternative schools dropped out of these "last chance'' institutions. An additional 20 percent were so much older than their grade level that it was unlikely they would earn enough credits to graduate by age 21.

The report also states that young dropouts have never been the major beneficiaries of the nation's "second chance'' programs, such as the Job Training Partnership Act or the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which offer a combination of remediation, basic-skills training, and assistance in finding jobs.

Under CETA, for instance, young dropouts accounted for fewer than 20 percent of the youths participating in the program.

According to the study, the bottom line is identifying and helping children when they first begin to show signs of school failure.

Dropouts are concentrated among a small proportion of youngsters with "distinctive characteristics,'' it states.

Such students, for example, are more likely to repeat a grade; to fall behind in academic achievement; to have low reading, writing, mathematics, science, speaking, listening, and reading abilities; to describe themselves as disliking school; to come from families that receive welfare; to be pregnant; or to have a history of in-school detentions and suspensions.

The authors summarized additional findings from previous studies as follows:

  • The more poor children there are in a school, the higher the dropout rate. Urban schools where less than 20 percent of the students are poor have a relatively low dropout rate; in districts where more than half the students are poor, 30 percent or more drop out.
  • About 13 percent of white students drop out. But studies have estimated that between 12 percent and 24 percent of black students do so. Some estimates suggest that as many as 40 percent of Hispanic students and 48 percent of Native Americans leave school before graduation.
  • Self-reported differences in dropout rates also occur by region and by city size. Southwestern states, for example, suffered dropout rates as high as 21 percent, compared with 9 percent in Northwestern states. Dropout rates were twice as high in large cities as in small cities (25 percent versus 13 percent).
  • A scarcity of resources in some high schools may also lead to a higher dropout rate. For example, when the education analyst Harold Hodgkinson examined state retention rates in 1985, he found that dropout rates for schools with the most favorable teacher-to-student ratios were less than two-thirds of those for schools with the worst ratios.

Data Lacking

The report also criticizes school districts for keeping inaccurate and incomplete data on school dropouts.

"Among the thousands of school districts in the United States,'' it notes, "it sometimes seems no two count dropouts in the same way.''

In many localities, the report adds, no central statewide or citywide authority rigorously scrutinizes such data. As a result, students who leave school often are not reflected in enrollment statistics.

"The underestimation of the dropout rate on the local level raises serious issues of public accountability,'' it concludes. "Until a uniform and accurate system of calculating the dropout rate is developed by local school systems, dropout-prevention efforts will continue to be directed toward a small number of 'troubled teens,' rather than the majority of students in some inner-city schools who will leave or are at risk of leaving before commencement day.''

Dissenting View

In a statement included with the report, Michael A. Bailin, president of Public/Private Ventures and a member of the study's advisory committee, took exception to the authors' conclusions on two counts.

He argued, first, that "we do not have adequate research--either regarding implementation or impact--on which to base a judgment regarding many of the programs and policies recommended.'' Second, he said, developing comprehensive and integrated services for dropouts will be extremely difficult, and the report fails to develop a coherent framework for its "disparate listing of remedies.''

The experience of his own organization, he wrote, "is that the separate goals, procedures, and identities of the various youth-servicing institutions--in short, their 'turf'--are critical barriers to achieving integration and coordination.''

"In fact,'' Mr. Bailin said, "these barriers are equal to, if not greater than, the problems of resources and commitment.''

Ms. Danzberger admitted that the level of collaboration called for in the report would be hard to obtain. But she argued that "if this is a problem that is important, possibly even threatening, to our social structure as well as our economy,'' society has "reached a point where there simply has to be a different structure'' for serving at-risk youths.

Copies of the report may be obtained for $7.50 each, $4.50 for 10 to 25 copies, or $4.00 for 26 copies or more, from the Publications Department, I.E.L., 1001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., #310, Washington, D.C. 20036, or by calling (202) 822-8405.

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