How to End the Dropout Crisis
Proven strategies for keeping kids in school.
by Roberta Furger
Are you sitting down? This year, an estimated 1.25 million kids will leave school without
earning a high school diploma -- that's approximately 7,000 students every day of the
academic year. Without that diploma, they'll head down a path that leads to low-paying jobs,
poor health, and the continuation of a cycle of poverty that creates immense challenges for
families, neighborhoods, and communities.
For some students, dropping out is the culmination of years of academic hurdles, missteps,
and wrong turns. For others, the decision to drop out is a response to conflicting life pressures
-- the need to help support their family financially or the demands of caring for siblings or
their own child. Dropping out is sometimes about students being bored and seeing no
connection between academic life and "real" life. It's about young people feeling disconnected
from their peers and from teachers and other adults at school. And it's about schools and
communities having too few resources to meet the complex emotional and academic needs of
their most vulnerable youth.
Although the reasons for dropping out vary, the consequences of the decision are remarkably
similar. Dropouts earn less, suffer from poorer health, and are more likely to wind up in jail
than their diploma-earning peers. An August 2007 report by the California Dropout Research
Project detailed the economic and social impacts of failing to finish high school in the Golden
State. The numbers are sobering: Dropouts will earn $290,000 less than an "average" high
school graduate over their lifetime, and they are 68 percent more apt to rely on public
assistance. The link between dropout rates and violence is also well documented: High school
graduates are 20 percent less likely to commit violent crime than nongraduates are.
Mounting research on the causes and consequences of dropping out, coupled with more
accurate reporting on the extent of the crisis, has led to increased public focus on what's been
called the silent epidemic. And with that focus comes the possibility of more action at the
local, state, and national levels to implement a mix of reforms that will support all students
through high school graduation. Such reforms include early identification of and support for
struggling students, more relevant and engaging courses, and structural and scheduling
changes to the typical school day.
Decades of research and pockets of success point to measures that work. Here are ten
strategies that can help reduce the dropout rate in your school or community. We begin with
steps to connect students and parents to school and then address structural, programmatic,
and funding changes:
Engage and Partner with Parents
It's an all-too-familiar story: Parent involvement declines as students get older and become
more independent. But although the role of parents changes in secondary school, their
ongoing engagement -- from regular communication with school staff to familiarity with their
child's schedule, courses, and progress toward graduation -- remains central to students'
success. Findings in a March 2006 report, "The Silent Epidemic," illustrate the importance of
engaged parents throughout secondary school. Sixty-eight percent of the high school dropouts
who participated in the study said their parents became involved in their education only after
realizing their student was contemplating dropping out of school.
In Sacramento, California, high school staff members conduct home visits to keep parents
engaged with their children's progress. This strategy includes visiting parents of teens entering
high school -- a critical transition point for many students -- to begin building a net of support
and to connect parents to the new school. Staffers also conduct summer home visits between
the sophomore and junior years to students who are at risk of not graduating because of
deficiencies in course credits, the possibility of failing the state high school exit exam (a
condition of graduation), or poor grades. Although it's too early to know the impact on
graduation rates (the first class receiving exit-exam-related home visits is slated to graduate
in spring 2009), early evaluations show that more students are attending academic-support
classes as a result of the visits. (Visit the Web site of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project.)
A concerned teacher or trusted adult can make the difference between a student's staying in
school or dropping out. That's why secondary schools around the country are implementing
advisories -- small groups of students that come together with a faculty member to create an
in-school family of sorts. These advisories, which meet during the school day, provide a
structured way of enabling those supporting relationships to grow and thrive. The most
effective advisories meet regularly, stay together for several years, and involve staff
development that helps teachers support the academic, social, and emotional needs of their
students. The Austin, Texas, school district began incorporating advisories into all of its
comprehensive high schools in 2007 after a survey revealed nearly one-quarter of all students
could not identify an adult on campus they felt they could turn to with a problem.
Pay Attention to Warning Signs
Project U-Turn, a collaboration among researchers, community groups, the school district, and
city agencies in Philadelphia, analyzed a variety of data sources over multiple years to develop
a deeper understanding of which students were most likely to drop out -- and to identify the
early-warning signs that should alert teachers, school staff, and parents to the need for
interventions. After five years of study, researchers were able to develop a profile of students
who were most at risk of not graduating.
Key indicators among eighth graders were a failing grade in reading or math and being absent
for more than 20 percent of school days. Among ninth graders, poor attendance and course
failure in English or math were key predictors of dropping out. Students who were not
promoted to tenth grade on time were also at significantly higher risk of not graduating.
Armed with this information, school and city staff are now developing strategies and practices
that provide at-risk students a web of increased support and services, including dropout-
prevention specialists in several high schools, accelerated-learning programs for older
students who are behind on credits, and reading programs for older students whose skills are
well below grade level.
Make Learning Relevant
Boredom and disengagement are two key reasons students stop attending class and wind up
dropping out of school. In "The Silent Epidemic," 47 percent of dropouts said a major reason
for leaving school was that their classes were not interesting. Instruction that takes students
into the broader community provides opportunities for all students -- especially experiential
learners -- to connect to academics in a deeper, more powerful way.
For example, at Big Picture schools throughout the country, internships in local businesses and
nonprofit organizations are integrated into the regular school week. Students work with
advisers to research and locate internships; then on-the-job mentors work with students and
school faculty to design programs that build connections between work life and academics.
Nationwide, Big Picture schools have a graduation rate of about 90 percent.
Raise the Academic Bar
Increased rigor doesn't have to mean increased dropout rates. Higher expectations and more
challenging curriculum, coupled with the support students need to be successful, have proven
to be an effective strategy not only for increasing graduation rates but also for preparing
students to graduate from high school with options. In San Jose, California, the San Jose
Unified School District implemented a college-preparatory curriculum for all students in 1998.
Contrary to the concerns of early skeptics, the more rigorous workload didn't cause graduation
rates to plummet. Recent data shows that the SJUSD has a four-year dropout rate of just 13.3
percent, compared with a statewide average of 21.5 percent.
For too many students, large comprehensive high schools are a place to get lost rather than to
thrive. That's why districts throughout the country are working to personalize learning by
reorganizing large high schools into small schools or small learning communities as part of
their strategy for reducing the dropout rate. A June 2007 report on forty-seven new small
public high schools that have opened in New York City since 2002 showed higher graduation
rates at the new schools compared with their much larger predecessors. In 2007, the new
small high schools reported an average graduation rate of 73 percent, compared with a 60
percent graduation rate throughout the city the prior year.
For some students, the demands of a job or family responsibilities make it impossible to
attend school during the traditional bell schedule. Forward-thinking districts recognize the
need to come up with alternatives. At Liberty High School, a Houston public charter school for
recent immigrants, classes start late in the afternoon and run into the evening, providing
students with flexible scheduling that enables them to work and attend school. Similarly, in
Las Vegas, students at Sunset High School's Cowan Campus can attend classes in the evening
to accommodate work schedules, and they are offered child care so new parents can continue
Develop a Community Plan
In its May 2007 report "What Your Community Can Do to End Its Drop-Out Crisis," the Center
for Social Organization of Schools, at Johns Hopkins University, advocates development of a
community-based strategy to combat the problem. Author Robert Balfanz describes three key
elements of a community-driven plan: First is knowledge -- understanding the scope of the
problem as well as current programs, practices, and resources targeted at addressing it.
Second is strategy -- development of what Balfanz describes as a "dropout prevention,
intervention, and recovery plan" backed by sustained school and community resources. Last is
ongoing assessment -- regular evaluation and improvement of practices to ensure that
community initiatives are having the desired effect.
Invest in Preschool
In their August 2007 policy brief "The Return on Investment for Improving California's High
School Graduation Rate" (download a PDF of the brief), Clive R. Belfield and Henry M. Levin
review a variety of research-proven and cost-effective strategies for addressing the dropout
crisis. Preschool, they argue, is an early investment in youth that pays big dividends later on.
In their review of the research on preschool models in California and elsewhere, the authors
found that high school graduation rates increased by 11 to 19 percent among students who
had attended a high-quality preschool program.
Adopt a Student-Centered Funding Model
Research shows that it costs more to educate some students, including students living in
poverty, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. Recognizing this need,
districts and some states have adopted a student-centered funding model, which adjusts the
per-pupil funding amount based on the demographics of individual students in a school or
district. Flexible funding enables schools with more challenging populations to gain access to
more resources so they can reduce class and school size, hire more experienced and effective
teachers, and implement other programs and services to support students with greater needs.
Although switching to this funding model does require an infusion of new dollars -- to support
the added costs associated with educating certain groups of students without reducing funds
to schools with smaller at-risk populations -- several districts are exploring this option,
including those in Denver; New York City; Oakland, California; and San Francisco.