Lack of Research, Data Hurts Dropout Efforts, Experts Say

By Christina A. Samuels — May 08, 2007 3 min read
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Despite widespread concern about high school students’ dropping out before earning a diploma, research doesn’t offer much in the way of proven methods of addressing the problem, experts said last week.

Only eight programs have been researched rigorously enough to merit their inclusion in the federal What Works Clearinghouse, which was established in 2002 by the Institute of Education Sciences to provide a source of scientific evidence about what works in education.

That’s just one of the challenges a panel of experts discussed at a May 3 forum on dropout prevention sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute, a Washington-based think tank named after the late president of the American Federation of Teachers.

The gathering was intended to bring together experts to talk about the scope of the dropout problem, and possible solutions. According to federal statistics, the proportion of children who do not complete high school at the end of 13 years of schooling is about 11 percent of the high school population, but can be as high as 28 percent among Hispanic students.

“This is a very underresearched area,” said Mark Dynarski, one of the panelists and the principal investigator for dropout prevention for the IES, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

“For 20 years, we’ve had a social problem that’s pretty big that has not moved one whit, … and basically, the clearinghouse has reviewed eight things that might work,” Mr. Dynarski said. The clearinghouse reviewed studies conducted over the past 20 years, he said.

The variation in statistics on dropouts outlines a problem even more fundamental than the relatively small number of dropout-prevention programs that have been proven successful, said Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Nationwide, there is still little agreement on just who is a “dropout,” Mr. Balfanz said. States are allowed to define dropout rates and graduation rates in different ways, he said.

“You can’t say if Minnesota is any better than Michigan in terms of dropouts,” he said.

The National Governors Association has proposed a standard formula for states to use in calculating graduation rates.The two panelists said they would favor including a uniform policy for calculating graduation rates in the reauthorized federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Unevenly Distributed

The dropout problem is not distributed evenly across the country, Mr. Balfanz said. Fifteen states account for 80 percent of the high school dropouts any given year, he said. About 2,000 schools in those 15 states—located mainly in urban areas, the South, and the Southwest—produce 50 percent of the nation’s dropouts.

Mr. Balfanz calls such schools “dropout factories,” defined by a situation in which the number of seniors is 60 percent or less than the number of freshmen entering four years earlier.

There appear to be two types of dropouts, he said: those who leave school because of life events—for instance, pregnancy or bullying—and students who fall away from school because of long-running academic failure. Their attendance becomes more and more sporadic until finally they just stop showing up.

A few of the successful dropout-prevention programs seek to halt that slow slide by designating one adult to follow up with small groups of students at risk of dropping out.

The Achievement for Latinos Through Academic Success program, which originated in Los Angeles, showed a large positive effect on dropout rates with that kind of personal approach. Also listed on the What Works Clearinghouse site is Check & Connect, established through a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the 36,400-student Minneapolis district. Both programs are aimed at middle school students.

Such programs are fairly expensive, Mr. Dynarski said. “But the alternative is that lots of these kids are going to drop out,” he said.

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Senate would attempt to address the high school dropout problem in part by shifting more money into research for effective prevention models. Senate Bill 1185, also known as the Graduation Promise Act, would authorize $2.5 billion to strengthen federal and state partnerships to prevent dropouts. Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., it was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions last month.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2007 edition of Education Week as Lack of Research, Data Hurts Dropout Efforts, Experts Say


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