n his first address to Congress in February 2009, when the nation teetered on the brink of economic collapse, President Obama declared that “dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country—and this country needs and values the talents of every American.” Since then, the administration has made a major commitment to increasing America’s high school graduation rate, which was once the highest in the developed world and is now among the lowest. Leading researchers now agree that 25 to 30 percent of students who enroll in American high schools fail to graduate. In many of the country’s largest urban school districts, such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Indianapolis, the dropout rate is as high as 60 percent, and rates are similarly high in many rural areas. A generation ago, high school dropouts could still join the military, or get work on assembly lines, and had a fair chance of finding their way in the world. President Obama does not exaggerate when he implies that today’s America has little use for dropouts and cannot expect to flourish so long as their numbers remain so high.
The administration has proposed nearly $1 billion in its latest budget specifically for the dropout problem. And it has already put $7.4 billion on the table, including its famous Race to the Top grants, which states and districts can get only if they agree to overhaul their worst-performing high schools. These are the 2,000 or so high schools that Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan refer to as “dropout factories”—schools that graduate fewer than 60 percent of their students and account for more than half the nation’s dropouts.
This level of financial commitment to fixing America’s underperforming high schools is unprecedented. The 1983 Nation at Risk report, which marked the start of the modern era of education reform, did not so much as mention the dropout problem even as it called for higher graduation requirements. Between 1988 and 1995, only eighty-nine school districts won federal grants for dropout prevention programs. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 applied mostly to grades three through eight. While it nominally required states to hold high schools accountable for dropout rates, it ended up allowing them to lowball the problem. Generally, the thought among educational reformers has been to concentrate on preschool and grade school education, and hope that success there would result in better student performance in high school.
Informing this approach was a not-unreasonable fear that by the time struggling students reached high school, there was little that could be done to turn them around. A 1999 report found that what few federally financed attempts had been made to improve teaching in high schools did not lower the dropout rate. A 2002 General Accounting Office report summed up twenty years of federal dropout prevention efforts by noting that the few that had been rigorously evaluated showed mixed results. Worse, even the occasional success stories were not replicated.
Which leaves a big question: Do we know enough today to make good use of a new massive federal commitment to lowering the dropout rate? One reason to think so is that there has been a data-driven revolution in our understanding of the problem.
During the 1970s and ’80s and well into the ’90s, educators and social scientists attempted, without a lot of success, to discover the most important predictors of whether a student would drop out or not. Mostly they wound up using known risk factors—such as extreme poverty, poor grades, and contact with the juvenile justice and foster care systems—to predict who would drop out and try, through mentoring and other services, to keep them from doing so. Students who fit those categories were on average more likely to drop out. But averages can be misleading, especially when there is great diversity around the mean.
In recent years, researchers have gained access to “longitudinal” data—that is, information on the experiences of individual students as they progress over time. This research has yielded far more precise indicators of which students are likely not to graduate. For example, while many juvenile delinquents drop out, many do not. Yet if any child has a poor attendance record in ninth grade or fails to pass ninth-grade English or math, the chances are overwhelming that he or she won’t graduate, regardless of background or other experience. The research also showed much more variety among dropouts than experts imagined. Some have earned only a fraction of the credits they would need to graduate, while others drop out only a few credits shy of a diploma, largely because of outside events—a run-in with the law, say, or a family emergency requiring them to stay home with siblings. Such granular information should make it much easier to craft the right interventions for the right kids.
et there is still a big difference between abstract knowledge and effective practice. What do we really know about what has worked, and what has not, in schools? To answer this question, the Washington Monthly sent reporters to three large urban school districts—New York City, Philadelphia, and Portland, Oregon—that have worked strenuously in recent years to apply the new research to improve their chronically low graduation rates. The reports that have come back from the field give reason for qualified optimism. Yes, it is possible to move the needle on the dropout problem, but good intentions and effort are no guarantee of success.
All three cities have taken remarkably similar approaches to the problem. Those approaches fall into two general categories: fixing existing low-performing high schools, often by breaking them into smaller schools; and creating alternative schools and programs—“multiple pathways,” in the jargon of the trade—that cater to the diverse needs of those kids who are on the verge of dropping out or already have done so. All three cities also have very active civil sectors—business groups, nonprofits, local and national foundations—which are playing central roles in the reform dramas, from spurring school officials into action to designing and running alternative programs.
And yet despite these similarities, the three cities have had quite different outcomes. New York has achieved the most impressive progress in lowering its dropout rate. Philadelphia has made real if less dramatic headway. Portland, on the other hand, has seen zero measurable improvement. These results are almost the opposite of what you’d expect. After all, New York and Philadelphia are much bigger districts with much higher concentrations of poverty.
Policy choices can’t really explain the differences, since all three districts tried similar approaches. Rather, the explanation seems to lie in leadership and attitude. The New York schools have had one very capable and driven chancellor, Joel Klein, running them for eight years, whereas Philly and Portland have each gone through several superintendents, each bringing his or her own vision. And in New York, Klein has fostered an atmosphere of high expectations and accountability: every student is presumed capable of getting a diploma, and schools are measured and rewarded based on that assumption. In Portland, the opposite has been true. Dropouts and at-risk kids, especially those in the city’s alternative schools, are coaxed into showing up in class, not challenged to actually graduate, and almost no adults are held accountable for results. (On the expectations-and-accountability front, Philly is closer to the New York model, and so is its level of success.)
What do these three case studies tell us about whether the Obama administration’s efforts are likely to work? For one thing, they suggest that success, if it comes, will not be uniform, but will vary according to the quality of local leaders and the engagement of local civic actors. For another, it confirms that school districts can get the job done and ought to be held responsible for doing so. “The problem is too big and complex for individual schools to handle on their own,” notes education consultant Chris Sturgis. They also suggest that the administration is on the right track with the policies it’s pushing, but not totally so. The vast majority of the funds the administration is making available are for turning around existing, low-performing high schools (by bringing in new leaders, new teachers, or turning them into charter schools). This is the right target, and one Washington has long neglected. But our reporting, as well as much research literature, shows that turning around chronically low-performing schools is awfully hard to pull off and will likely fail more often than it succeeds.
By contrast, the administration is putting relatively little money into the creation of alternative schools specifically for students who have dropped out or are about to. This doesn’t make much sense. Yes, alternative schools can easily become dumping grounds for the hard-to-educate, as has happened in Portland. But when good systems of accountability are built in, as New York has done, alternative schools can work well and are a crucial tool in getting graduation rates up.
There are other risks to the administration’s approach. On the one hand it is pushing policies to lower the dropout rate. On the other it is pressing Congress and the states to increase academic standards. Many experts warn that these are conflicting goals—that the latter will make the former harder to accomplish, and the former will create further incentives to undermine the latter. That may be true. But it’s worth noting that New York hasn’t succumbed to that contradiction: it has increased graduation rates and the percentage of its students who pass its high-standards Regents exam.
Any effort to lower the dropout rate must also work against the countervailing effects of growing inequality, fallout of the Great Recession, and a demographic tide that leaves more students struggling with English as a second language. Indeed, many experts think that schools and teachers cannot by themselves provide the level of social support needed to make the kind of headway we’d want against the dropout problem. Robert Balfanz, a leading scholar on dropouts and codirector of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, has put together a consortium of schools in which members of City Year, the national service program for young adults, are assigned to work one-on-one with at-risk kids to help with their studies and keep them in school. Another group, Communities in Schools, assigns social workers as case managers for students with more acute needs.
Yet even without such extra levels of social support, our three case studies suggest that real progress can be made. That finding should be inspiring, especially considering how important such progress can be to the long-term strength of America’s economy and society. One study estimates that if all the students who drop out over a decade were to graduate instead, they would earn an additional $3 trillion in wages. That amount of money would do a lot to make the economic recovery that is now shakily underway sustainable in the years to come.