School & District Management Opinion

AERA Continued: Dropout Factories

By Eduwonkette — April 01, 2008 3 min read
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In the fall, the AP reported that 1 in 10 US high schools are “dropout factories.” At AERA, Robert Balfanz provided an overview of Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools’ research that led to the AP article.

Central to the “dropout factory” is the idea of promoting power. “Promoting power” compares the number of 12th-graders in a high school to the number of 9th-graders three years earlier. While this is not a direct measure of the graduation rate, it is a decent indicator, and can be calculated for every school in America from the NCES Common Core of Data. Balfanz and colleagues labeled schools with promoting power of less than 60% - i.e. of 100 freshman enrolled in the fall of 2004, fewer than 60 are still enrolled in the fall of 2007 – as dropout factories. These schools are located primarily in urban centers and in the South and Southwest, and 25% of them are the only high school in their town. Schools with high concentrations of minority students are overrepresented: 56% of schools that enroll more than 90% African-American or Hispanic students are classified as dropout factories.

What I didn’t hear in the fall news coverage on dropout factories was a consideration of how out-of-school factors drive the dropout rate. Balfanz did a nice job of not only blaming schools, but the broader social policy context in which schools and students are located. As Balfanz wrote in an article available at the gradgap.org website:

The teachers, administrators, and students in these schools are often going to heroic lengths to succeed despite long odds. The fault lies not with the schools or their teachers or students but with the intended and unintended consequences of decisions made at the city, state, and federal levels to create a subset of under-resourced, over-challenged, and non-supported schools that primarily educate low-income and minority students.

Balfanz reviewed, and then generally dismissed, three popular approaches to reforming these struggling schools. Closing schools may be necessary in some cases, Balfanz said. However, many school closings replace one under-resourced, struggling school with another. And for schools that are the only high school in town, it’s a difficult sell. A second popular remedy is reconstitution, which Balfanz argued has no track record of success.

A third solution is the creation of small schools, which Balfanz was optimistic about in cities with high concentrations of human capital (New York and Boston). But he warned that these schools have the potential to displace the students who would have attended the old “dropout factory” otherwise (see here, here, and here on displacement in New York). Instead of these three silver bullet solutions, Balfanz argued that we need a “wholesale transformation” of these schools, which includes a mix of schoolwide, targeted, and intensive interventions. He didn’t go into great depth about what this transformation would look like, though he did mention an “early warning system” – one that closely monitors grades, attendance, and behavior for students who are at-risk of dropping out – as an important component of high school reform.

Of particular interest was Balfanz’s discussion of how our “counterproductive accountability system” creates pressure to hold students back so they don’t affect the schools’ scores, or to transfer students so they don’t count against the school’s graduation rate. Balfanz mentioned that an “on-track to graduate indicator” might be a better accountability metric, but didn’t go into detail about how this indicator could be used for accountability purposes.

Interesting session overall, but I was left wondering whether the dropout factory press splash actually moved this debate forward, or was just another “our schools are failing” report that paved the way for more school closings that often leave nothing better in the dropout factory’s place. I also wanted more detail about what a “wholesale transformation” looks like on the ground.

Image credit: inmagine.com

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