School & District Management Opinion

Dropout Factories: New Strategies States Can Use

By Cheryl Almeida, Robert Balfanz & Adria Steinberg — December 15, 2009 6 min read
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Amid a welcome surge of investments in education, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have put a priority on turning around the 2,000 high schools known as the nation’s “dropout factories.” These schools routinely graduate 60 percent or fewer of their students, and together account for half of America’s dropouts. For years, they have appeared to be impervious to efforts toward change, with a decade’s worth of piecemeal reforms and incremental school improvement strategies failing to produce the results many had hoped for.

Secretary Duncan is seeking to change this reality by combining carrots and sticks, including new incentives through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for state and local education policymakers to address their low-performing schools—especially their lowest-performing secondary schools—and increased federal accountability for raising graduation rates.


The pressure to find ways to fix schools fast will no doubt tempt some to quickly scale up interventions that have made an impact in a few places. But it would be a waste of precious resources to do so without carefully analyzing the conditions that make success possible. Too often, good ideas are applied in the wrong places. Policy and practice leaders must decide which strategies to apply, where to apply them, and how each level of government should participate.

To help guide those decisions, Jobs for the Future and the Everyone Graduates Center recently analyzed a critical subset of states: those with high concentrations and/or high numbers of low-graduation-rate high schools. Our research led to five key factors that should inform strategies to transform or replace the nation’s dropout factories.

The location of low-graduation-rate high schools in a state matters. The geographic concentration and spread of such schools in a state often trumps regional proximity in identifying states facing similar challenges. For example, Tennessee is a “big-city challenge” state, meaning at least half its low-graduation-rate high schools are in one or two major cities. When it comes to effective school reform strategies, Tennessee may have more in common with Pennsylvania or New York than with Mississippi, where low-graduation-rate high schools are found primarily in rural communities.

While state and federal officials can help set the conditions for reform, the transformation of these high schools will require major cities to take a leading role—for example, by developing and carrying out systemic plans for transforming or replacing these high schools and accounting for graduation and dropout rates. These cities will also need to develop innovative schools and programs tailored to helping students recover lost credits and get back on track to graduation.

Some states are better positioned than others to lead reform efforts. A strong case can be made for collective action in states where the relative number of low-graduation-rate high schools is not overwhelming, and where such schools are spread across urban, suburban, and rural communities.

The nation's leaders and the public must get beyond the myth that nothing works, that low-graduation-rate schools cannot be transformed or replaced successfully."

For example, these “statewide spread” states can, as North Carolina and Texas have done, assemble powerful public-private partnerships to redesign low-performing high schools and implement portfolios of new small schools that accelerate students toward graduation and postsecondary success. Federal officials should encourage these states to play an active role, using federal incentive funding to support statewide strategies for dropout prevention, intervention, and recovery, including new “back on track” school designs.

In “statewide crisis” states, on the other hand, including Florida, Nevada, and South Carolina, the likelihood that students will be in high schools where graduation is not the norm is alarmingly high. The widespread prevalence of low-graduation-rate high schools may overwhelm state resources and necessitate a substantial federal capacity-building role, especially since most of these states are in dire economic straits.

Different strategies are needed in districts with a single high school. In a substantial number of states, including ones as diverse as Michigan and Texas, a majority of districts with low-graduation-rate high schools are such districts. Because these single high schools are central to the community, and often the major employer, efforts to transform them must engage key community leaders who have the credibility and skill to rally residents around the need for change. These districts will need to find innovative means, such as partnerships with nearby community colleges, to create viable pathways to college and career training for all students. Federal and state governments can create both pressure and incentives to help community leaders put such solutions into action.

School size and staffing ratios matter. The term “dropout factory” usually evokes images of a 2,000-student school in a large city, with bare-bones staffing and few adults available outside of classrooms—except perhaps for armed security guards. In a number of states, notably California and Nevada, this is often the case. In these circumstances, resources for reform are very limited; both dramatic school transformation and increased student supports are required. In contrast, some schools with low graduation rates are in small towns or rural communities, with as few as 600 to 800 students; some also have relatively favorable student-to-teacher ratios.

As much research has shown, smaller schools can present fewer obstacles to reform. Also, better student-to-teacher ratios, while not necessarily indicating better pedagogy, do generally mean that more adults are in the building to notice what is (or isn’t) happening for students, and to help them get needed supports.

But smaller low-graduation-rate high schools and the communities in which they are located may not be in a position to take advantage of these assets. Federal and state governments may need to invest in building their capacity to engage in systematic reform. Here, the federal agricultural-extension agency may prove a useful model. A cadre of educators could serve as dissemination and training agents, working with districts and schools to adapt effective strategies for school transformation or replacement to local circumstances.

Some states are, like the insurance giant AIG, simply too big to fail. The whole nation suffers from the failure of high schools in states such as California and Florida, especially when the states are too fragile to recover on their own. In Michigan and South Carolina, for example, low-graduation-rate high schools predominate in communities that have lost their industrial and employment base. “Graduation bonds” similar to the “recovery bonds” mandated in the ARRA could go a long way toward providing seed capital for districts to transform or replace these schools, and to develop new options for young people who are dropping out. Turning dropouts into graduates would stimulate economic growth and decrease social-service costs, enabling these states to pay off the bonds.

For America to transform or replace its dropout factories, it will need to create a flexible federal-state-local system for improving high schools in which different levels of government play either lead or supporting roles, depending on the circumstances.

Equally important, the nation’s leaders and the public must get beyond the myth that nothing works, that low-graduation-rate schools cannot be transformed or replaced successfully. The knowledge base of promising strategies is strong and growing. The federal government is making a substantial investment in building capacity and change. Now is the time for a concerted effort to match reforms to the circumstances where they are most likely to succeed.

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Dropout Factories: New Strategies States Can Use

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