Equity & Diversity Commentary

Closing ‘Dropout Factories’

By Robert Balfanz & Nettie Legters — July 11, 2006 7 min read

The debate over how best to measure the nation’s graduation rate is important. We need to know who graduates and who does not. (Diplomas Count, June 22, 2006.) Yet in the midst of questions about measurement and data quality, we must not lose sight of what lies plainly before us and is calling loudly for immediate action.

Dave Cutler


For the past decade, we and our colleagues Ruth Neild at the University of Pennsylvania and Liza Herzog at the Philadelphia Education Fund have studied the dropout and graduation-rate crisis at the school level. We have learned that about 15 percent of the nation’s high schools produce close to half of its dropouts. These 2,000 high schools are the nation’s dropout factories. They have weak promoting power—the number of seniors is routinely 60 percent or less than the number of freshmen four years earlier—and large numbers of their students are not making steady progress toward graduation.

About half of these schools are in cities; the other half are found primarily throughout the South and Southwest. Whether the national graduation rate has gotten better, worse, or remained static over the last decade is unclear to us. What we do know is that the number of high schools with weak promoting power has nearly doubled in the last decade.

We also have learned that poverty is the fundamental driver of low graduation rates. There is a near-perfect linear relationship between a high school’s poverty level and its tendency to lose large numbers of students between the 9th and 12th grades. In the states we have looked at in more depth, minority students are promoted to 12th grade at the same or greater rates as white youths when they attend middle-class or affluent high schools in which few students live in poverty.

Relatively few minority students attend such high schools, however. Nearly half of the nation’s African-American and Latino students attend high schools with high poverty and low graduation rates. This is social dynamite, since in modern America a good education is the only reliable path out of poverty. The fact that most of these high-poverty, high-minority secondary schools do not receive funding through Title I, the federal program designed to help offset the impact of poverty, is outrageous.

Whether the national graduation rate has gotten better, worse, or remained static over the last decade is unclear to us. What we do know is that the number of high schools with weak promoting power has nearly doubled in the last decade.

We also have been able to follow multiple cohorts of students in two major Northeastern school districts. Our data show that, contrary to the memories of the dropouts interviewed by Civic Enterprises in its report “The Silent Epidemic,” released in March, the majority of dropouts in these cities leave high school with few credits, because they have failed the majority of their classes.

This is not to ignore important subgroups of dropouts, who demonstrate some high school skills, persevere to the 11th or 12th grade, and leave school just shy of graduation, in response to life events, boredom, or frustration. But we have found that graduation rates in the 50 percent to 60 percent range typical in many cities are driven by students who enter high school poorly prepared for success and rarely (or barely) make it out of the 9th grade. They disengage from school, attend infrequently, fail too many courses to be promoted to the 10th grade, try again with no better results, and ultimately drop out of school. Our data show that from 20 percent to 40 percent of students in these cities repeat the 9th grade, but that only 10 percent to 15 percent of repeaters go on to graduate.

Our experience in working to improve more than 70 high-poverty, nonselective high schools tells us that the nation’s dropout factories are not the result of students, teachers, and administrators who do not care or try. They care and try a lot. But they are often overmatched by the immense educational challenges they face. There are too many underresourced, economically and racially segregated high schools that lack the tools and techniques to meet the challenges they face. In such schools, it is not uncommon for up to 80 percent of the 9th graders to be overage, repeating the grade, in need of special education services, or have math and reading skills below a 7th grade level. Yet increasingly, we are asking these students to pass algebra courses, and even exams, before they can be promoted to the 10th grade.

These students have the ability to do this, but they need much more intensive and effective instruction and adult support than our high-poverty comprehensive high schools, with their current levels of resources, can provide. Schools that beat these odds and have high percentages of students who succeed in challenging courses provide multiple layers of support: Strong instructional programs are matched with a schedule that allows for double-dosing in these subjects and extra help from caring teachers within a personalized, interdisciplinary team structure. But this is still not enough for all students to succeed. Some may require summer school, and a few will need further focused instruction in the fall to earn promotion to the next grade. Providing this kind of intensive support requires not only committed adults who refuse to give up on their students, but additional time, resources, training, and materials as well.

Our most recent study reveals, moreover, that many students start to fall off the graduation track at the beginning of adolescence. We have been able to identify more than half of one large school district’s future dropouts as early as the 6th grade by looking at just four variables: attendance, behavior, and course failure in math and English. Students with any one of these risk factors had less than a 20 percent chance of graduating within five years of entering high school.

Hence, one reason that the 9th grade finishes off so many students is that they may already have been struggling with and disengaging from school for three years or more. This tells us, along with the recent on-track measures for 9th graders developed by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, that there are powerful and accessible indicators schools can use to identify the overwhelming majority of students who are likely to drop out in time to prevent them. Such information also can indicate the areas in which these students need greater support.

States and districts can use currently available indicators to identify both the high schools that produce the majority of dropouts and the students most likely to drop out. Our research points to concrete steps that can be taken now to address the graduation crisis head-on. At least three types of intervention are required:

First, the nation’s dropout factories need to be fixed or replaced. This cause should unite everyone—the urban North and the rural South, civil rights advocates and policymakers concerned about competitiveness. Transforming these schools and school systems is the best shot we have at ending the stubborn grip of concentrated and intergenerational poverty that engulfs too many of our citizens and their communities.

Transforming these schools and school systems is the best shot we have at ending the stubborn grip of concentrated and intergenerational poverty.

We have the knowledge to do this, but it will not be easy, fast, or cheap. A central feature of these dropout factories is that they serve an overwhelming concentration of needy students. Thus, it is essential that the federal government, states, districts, and foundations bring to bear human and financial resources that are equal to the challenge. These schools’ resources vary considerably. Some struggling high schools can implement proven reforms by reallocating existing resources, others need additional support, and a quarter or more need a 25 percent to 33 percent increase in resources. Because reforming or replacing these schools is the educational equivalent of open-heart surgery, states and districts need to develop sufficient technical capacity to do the job or support third-party intermediaries who can.

Second, greater investment in research, development, and invention are needed, particularly in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. High school coursework needs to develop students’ intellect and reflect tighter and more substantial connections to higher education and the workplace. It also should incorporate significant experiential activities that engage these emerging adults in meaningful activities that build their skills and strengthen connections to supportive social networks. Coursework must be adaptable enough to address diverse needs, including those of the increasing number of adolescents who are English-language learners. Assessments need to support and encourage meaningful intellectual development and not limit learning to what is easily testable.

Finally, we must acknowledge the impact of poverty and activate “outside the box” approaches for our most vulnerable students. That means making investments in improving and integrating social-service and community supports in schools that serve high-poverty neighborhoods and regions. It means providing intensive supports to help students from poverty negotiate the treacherous transitions between educational levels. It means embracing a K-16 framework, but also acknowledging that adolescence (especially when combined with poverty) brings its own risk factors, and that a secondary approach spanning middle and high schools is needed to keep all students on track toward graduation.

We need to transform the high schools that produce most of our dropouts and the middle-grades schools that feed them. With a targeted, inventive, aligned, and integrated approach, we can do this. And we must.

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Closing ‘Dropout Factories’


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