School & District Management

Detailed Dropout Studies Guide Policy in City Schools

November 14, 2006 6 min read

Amid concern over the high dropout rates in many big-city high schools, district and community leaders are turning to researchers for a more fine-grained understanding of the nature and scope of the problem.

Recent analyses of the issue in New York City and Philadelphia offer not only basic statistics on how many students are dropping out, or are on track to do so, but also offer detailed looks at the characteristics of young people who leave school without diplomas. A similar study is expected out later this year from Portland, Ore. And officials in Boston are hoping to expand on recent studies of the city’s dropout situation.

“Unfulfilled Promise: The Dimensions and Characteristics of Philadelphia’s Dropout Crisis, 2000-2005" is posted by the Center for Social Organization of Schools.

Such research is helping schools and communities figure out better ways to keep students on track, often by intervening sooner.

“Nobody has had this data before,” Michele Cahill, a senior adviser to New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, said of the new analysis from that city. “It’s a very detailed and nuanced picture of our students’ experiences and the power and lack of power of our high schools.”

Philadelphia has an especially rich data set, thanks to a collaborative effort between various local government agencies, from the school district to social service providers, said Robert Balfanz, a principal research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who is a co-author of the new study on Philadelphia youths. (“Project Eyes Diverse Data Sets for Insight on Children,” Oct. 4, 2006.)

“This is the first study to make use of that integrated data for adolescents,” he said. “It’s sort of a crazy thing in our system that it took so long to get here.”

An Accurate Account

The picture in Philadelphia and New York City, as in most big cities, isn’t encouraging.

The Philadelphia research finds that between 54 percent and 58 percent of students in four recent entering classes of 9th graders earned a high school diploma within six years. For the classes of 2000 through 2005, about 30,000 students who began 9th grade in Philadelphia’s public high schools left without diplomas.

New York’s data identify students who are both overage for their grade levels and academically undercredited, defined as those who are at least two years off track in terms of expected age and credit accumulation toward earning a diploma.

Joyce Franklin, center, washes cabbage with instructional assistant Lorraine White, left, at Philadelphia's Kensington Culinary Arts School, which targets students at risk of dropping out of high school.

About half of all entering 9th graders in the 1.1-million student New York system, the nation’s largest, become overage and undercredited during high school, the study found. The analysis notes that most of those students will never graduate.

The district estimates that, as of June 2005, about 138,000 New York City youths ages 16 to 21 had dropped out of high school or were significantly off track for graduation.

The overage, undercredited population included 11 percent more males and 14 percent more African-American and Hispanic students than the overall student population in the city’s schools.

In January 2005, a coalition of philanthropies called the Youth Transition Funders Group announced grants of $275,000 each to five cities—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and San Jose, Calif.—to help combat the dropout problem. The grants were paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

The money sought to build broad-based community involvement in the efforts.

The Gates Foundation followed up with $2.6 million for the Parthenon Group of Boston to conduct the data analysis in New York City. In Philadelphia, the William Penn Foundation underwrote the study from Johns Hopkins University.

Meanwhile, the Charlottesville, Va.-based Pew Center for Civic Change is spearheading an effort to get cities to examine the dropout issue and increase the number of young people who earn diplomas. It has just announced such plans in Jacksonville, Fla., and Shreveport, La.

Eventually, 25 cities are expected to participate. Participating cities are expected “to get an accurate account of the problem,” said Suzanne W. Morse, the president of the Pew center. “We’re encouraging them to figure out a way that makes sense and is affordable.”

The Gates Foundation’s giving related to high school completion includes a grant for an annual Education Week special report on graduation issues.

Patterns Seen

Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 195,000-student Philadelphia school system, said one goal of the research effort in his city was to “develop a profile of dropouts” to more easily identify vulnerable students and to better guide policies to intervene with them.

“If you’re going to address the problem, you need to understand the true nature of the problem,” he said.

Mr. Balfanz of Johns Hopkins said one striking finding was just how easy it is to predict which students won’t graduate. “What we were able to show is that for 80 percent [of students], we can know with high probability who will drop out and who will not,” he said.

Two factors gave 8th graders at least a three-in-four likelihood of dropping out: attending school less than 80 percent of the time, and receiving a failing grade in mathematics, English, or both, the study found.

The study says that gender, race, age, and standardized-test scores do not have “strong predictive power” for attendance or course failure. It also found the probability of dropping out decreases dramatically for students who make it to 10th grade on time after entering high school.

Mr. Vallas cited a range of efforts to combat the dropout problem, such as reorganizing high schools into smaller units to provide more personalized learning, and revamping curriculum and instruction models. To have a more immediate impact on “8,000 children at risk of dropping out right now,” he said, the district is piloting initiatives ranging from a program to help pregnant teenagers to new schools tailored to overage students who are behind academically.

“We opened four of these schools over the last three years,” Mr. Vallas said, “and we’ve had a lot of success.”

Informing Policy

In New York, the analysis found that nearly all high school dropouts in the city have a history of being overage and undercredited, with 93 percent of the dropouts from the class of 2003 fitting that description.

Falling Behind

Overage and undercredited students are at least two years off track in terms of the credits they are expected to have accumulated at their age.

12dropout c1

Note: Includes all students who were overage and undercredited at any point in their high school careers. Excludes students in the city’s special education subdistrict.

12dropout c2

Note: In general, students must earn at least 44 credits to get a high school diploma.

SOURCE: New York City Department of Education; The Parthenon Group

A substantial number of students eventually fall into that category regardless of their proficiency level when they first enter high school. The study says that about one-quarter of students who enter high school at the expected age and who scored roughly on grade level or above on the district’s English-language test become overage and undercredited during high school.

The research also found that students who fall behind in earning academic credits leave the system rapidly. For instance, 84 percent of 16-year-olds with fewer than eight credits end up leaving the system. In general, students need 44 credits to earn a diploma.

New York City officials have been devising new approaches to grapple with the dropout problem. “All of this is to inform policy and investment decisions,” Ms. Cahill said of the dropout research.

One example she highlighted was the creation of so-called Transfer Schools, which are small, academically rigorous high schools designed to re-engage students who are overage and undercredited, or have dropped out of high school.

“We did find that our Transfer Schools had real power in graduating students who were far off track,” Ms. Cahill said.

In Boston, the district would like to expand on recent studies of its dropout situation, taking cues from the research in New York and Philadelphia, said J. Chris Coxon, a deputy superintendent in the 58,000-student district.

“We have decided that what we want to do is dig down much deeper to get even a clearer eye on what’s happening,” he said.

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Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Detailed Dropout Studies Guide Policy in City Schools


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