The Dropout Crisis

The Dropout Crisis

Educators sound off on the pros and cons of the National Education Association's 12-step plan to reduce dropouts.

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Every student will graduate

This strong message reverberated in education circles last October when the NEA unveiled a comprehensive plan for communities to address the dropout crisis because, after all, it takes a village to raise a child. Its 12-point plan to reduce the dropout rate, in part, calls on educators and community members to "not enable" would-be dropouts to leave. "We must take time to intervene and give students individual attention to stay connected and in school," NEA President Reginald Weaver said when the plan was announced. "This is a call to action, a call to change, a chance to step up and do our part. It's no longer acceptable to drop out."

Since a Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that warned that the U.S. education system's mediocrity would jeopardize the nation, some school and state education department officials have unsuccessfully been trying to get a grip on the high school dropout problem.

Dropping out forces young Americans into dead-end jobs where they make little money to support their families, or worse, they turn to unhealthy lifestyles and crime.

High school dropouts are 72% more likely to be unemployed compared to graduates - Source: U.S. Department of Labor

The statistics are striking:

Every nine seconds, a student drops out, according to the American Youth Policy Forum report, Whatever It Takes. One-third of public school students fail to graduate with their class, and nearly half of all blacks and Latinos fail to do so. They're bored, disengaged, or feel no one truly cares if they stay or go. Some choose to leave school to work for their families, or they become parents themselves.

Most states and districts use their own formulas to calculate the numbers, so comparing dropout rates is impossible, but most agree it's a crisis. The only answer for national economic, social, and healthy prosperity is to squash the problem with more money, more time, and more community support. "This issue is on life support," says Weaver. "If we don't do something, it will slip out of our grasp."

While Weaver claims there are many ways to address the problem, the NEA plan is the most promising based on a wide range of experience and data. And NEA's plan has the support of U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, who is co-authoring a Graduation for All bill in Congress with U.S. Rep. Susan Davis of California. Additional support comes from Verizon, offering programs to help students, and from John Bridgeland, co-author of The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropout, a report by Civic Enterprises with Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The epidemic report offers its own policy recommendations that are fairly consistent with the NEA's plan. "If we want to say it's the responsibility of one group, we'll never be successful," Weaver said. "It's everyone's responsibility to make sure these kids have a chance to go to school."

Some educators, asked to comment on the plan showed a wide range of responses. For example, some claimed certain points were unrealistic or old ideas repackaged differently, such as making graduation or equivalency compulsory up to age 21. But most also admitted that much of the plan's ideas are worthy. Most of the ideas demand money and resources, which are in short supply, and lack how-to implementation recipes for individual districts that vary in size, location, and ethnic and racial makeup, some say.

"They are saying, 'Take these 12 things and do them everywhere,'" says Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators. "There are about 25,000 secondary schools in America. Some of them have 25 kids and some have 5,000 kids. This cookie-cutter approach doesn't apply."

But the NEA thinks this approach, like other successful 12-step programs, could be an answer. Bridgeland agrees with the plan that making learning more engaging and relevant to students' lives would keep more of them in class. His own report's recommendations range from improving teaching and curricula, to showing links between school and work and developing early warning systems to identify students who might fall through the cracks. "Students are telling us this is a good plan," Bridgeland says. "It's been high on the public agenda, and finally someone is doing something about it."

NEA's 12 Steps

1. Mandate high school graduation or equivalency as compulsory for everyone below age 21.

To compete in the 21st century, everyone needs a high school education. Bridgeland's report agrees the nation should be committed to seeing students graduate through senior year of high school and raising the legal dropout age from 16 or 17 to 18.

But some educators in the field find this odd. Some say it's an admirable goal for which schools should strive, but they doubt government or schools can force anyone to graduate from high school. Some people aren't ready to gain enough credits to graduate until after age 21 or have too profound disabilities to graduate. "When you set unrealistic goals you breed a disrespect for the goals you have," Hunter says.

"There is no way to make or force the child to learn or meet the performance standards," adds Superintendent of Schools Charles "Pat" Proctor at Wethersfield (Conn.) Public Schools. And former Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech says that motivating students and keeping them engaged is what will keep them in school, not a mandate.

2. Establish high school graduation centers for older students, aged 19-21, to provide specialized instruction and counseling, separate from younger students.

Among the more "terrific" ideas to help students in need of help, Proctor says, the problems are: Who will pay for it and how, and who will mandate it-the federal government or local district leaders? "Is it a value to society and if so, then let's do it and find ways to support it," Proctor says.

"That's kind of an interesting proposal," Hunter agrees. "But if you rob Peter to pay Paul for those schools, it's not going to be well done and it reduces the likelihood of success."

But one successful program that caters to students ages 18 to 21 is in place at Woodson Academy at Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va. Most students in the program work or care for babies or loved ones at home and then take classes in the late afternoon or evenings to earn a traditional diploma. Courses are generally heavy on English as a Second Language for the newly arrived immigrants speaking foreign languages, says Domenech, now senior vice president of national urban markets at McGraw-Hill Education, and many continue to college.

3. Ensure students receive individual attention through safe schools, smaller learning communities in larger buildings, smaller classes, and during the summer, over weekends, and in after-school tutoring programs.

Hunter says smaller schools are already part of the educational landscape nationally but building smaller schools in tight urban areas is "very expensive." He does send kudos to the Boston Public Schools for creating smaller learning communities within larger buildings. For example, Boston-which won the 2006 Broad Prize for Urban Education- reconfigured several high schools into so-called "houses." About 350 students in a house can have many of the same teachers and counselors throughout high school, making it easier to seek academic and emotional help.

At the new Ocoee High School in Ocoee, Fla., part of the Orange County Public School District, the quality of the program sounds strong, but the jury is still out on whether or not it's a success, given it's only in its second year. "Our vision is simple: every student will graduate," Armbruster says.

Its 3,200 students, about half of whom receive free and reduced-price lunches, are spread among four smaller "colleges," aptly named Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia, that each have 800 students and share the same courses and options. "We keep them thinking ahead," says Principal Michael Armbruster. Teachers tend to take on various classes within their subjects so the chances of students sharing teachers year after year is strong. This helps to build stronger relationships, something which Armbruster says is one of the biggest keys to keeping students in school.

Beyond relationships, the system was built on a privilege system, which means students earn privileges with academic achievement. For example, the lunch block is about 90 minutes long, divided into lunchtime and work time. Struggling students getting Ds and Fs in reading and math, for example, need a full hour of extra tutoring to pull their grades up. For them, the remaining 30 minutes is for lunch. Stellar students can have a full hour for lunch and 30 minutes for tutoring students who need extra help. The biggest motivator for struggling students is an hour for lunch with friends, Armbruster says.

Then there are some students who thrive on games or candy. Seniors who pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and have at least a 2.0 GPA required for graduation get a "senior gold card," which gives them rewards such as reduced price tickets to the prom. One afternoon, senior gold card members got free candy bars and left school 10 minutes early. Some who didn't have a card were determined to pass the FCAT to collect. "It's funny what motivates kids," Armbruster says. And juniors who pass the FCAT when first taking it receive free admission to home athletic events, keeping them connected to school. "Nothing motivates everybody," he says. Ocoee High's "salad bar approach"-from candy to one-hour lunches-can motivate different types of students.

4. Expand students' graduation options by creating partnerships with community colleges in career and technical fields and with alternative schools. For students who are incarcerated, tie their release to high school graduation.

Hunter says educating incarcerated students sounds good but is complicated, given limits on space or teachers, as most prisons were built with only security and safety in mind. Proctor imagines an exaggerated scenario when someone might stay in prison for years for a shoplifting conviction because he had not yet received a General Equivalency Diploma, or GED.

"Certainly a get-out-of-jail-free card could be a motivator for some youths, but I don't know if legally it can work," Domenech says. "It might work." As Fairfax superintendent, he visited the county's youth detention center to convince the youths that a life of crime would get them nowhere but an education could get them anywhere. He used his own "West Side Story"-a Cuban immigrant who came with his family to New York City's west side at age 9 and didn't know the language but knew about street gangs. Despite the hardships, he worked hard in school and eventually earned a doctoral degree. "A lot of them think success is around the corner and they could find it on a baseball field or a basketball court. Not to dash anyone's hopes...but you almost have a 100 percent chance of succeeding if you get an education" first, he says.

But Proctor notes the value of partnerships with community colleges, particularly for technically oriented students, where students can earn a two-year college degree while still in high school, and if they choose, later pursue a four-year degree elsewhere.

5. Increase career education and workforce readiness programs so students can see connections between school and careers.

This step also strives to integrate 21st century skills into the curriculum and provide all students with access to 21st century technology. For example, Verizon is not only providing high-speed Internet connections in homes and schools but also providing programs that help students cultivate such skills. MarcoPolo: Internet Content for the Classrooms is a nonprofit consortium of educational organizations with the Verizon Foundation to provide high quality Internet content and professional development to teachers. Verizon spokesman Alberto Canal says the program meshes with any district's curriculum. It offers seven content Web sites with lesson plans, student interactive content, downloadable worksheets and a checks-and-balances system to ensure teachers' Internet integration needs are met. If students are in a summer school program and it's close to July 4th, for example, students can watch live demonstrations on the Web of firecrackers exploding and then learn the science behind how the explosions work. "It makes it easier for students to keep them engaged and learning," Canal says.

If U.S. schools graduated 1 percent more males from high school every year, the nation could see a reduction of crimes by 100,000 a year and save $1.4 billion annually. -Source: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis in Texas report.

Connections between school and careers are becoming more clear at West-Allis Milwaukee School District in Wisconsin, where freshmen are learning life and development issues. Success Highways, by ScholarCentric, is a standards-based curriculum that helps build life skills and is integrated into the existing curriculum. Based on 15 years of university research, it has been piloted in two large urban schools, building strong relationships with teachers and their peers and leading to improved academic achievement. Teachers can discuss what confidence means to individual students as well as link students' interests, like automobiles to math lessons, to keep them engaged. When one female student last year finalized a discussion by saying aloud, "That's it. I'm going to college," Beth Erenberger, the district's program support and assessment coordinator, says it was music to her ears. The student made a connection between what she was doing now and her future, the program's purpose. "Maybe she never thought of going to college and now she was excited about it and it was possible to her," Erenberger says.

6. Act early so students do not drop out, using high-quality, universal preschool and full-day kindergarten and programs that ensure students are doing grade-level work throughout their school careers.

Hunter points out the controversial nature of universal preschool. And various questions need answers: What is it that we want to do with preschool, and what resources and staff are available? Where is the money coming from? "We know effective instruction, but how to implement that in a way that you get the kind of results you wish to achieve-that's hard," Proctor says. Full-day kindergarten, which tykes can handle, should be a choice, as it might be vital for some students, such as those with full-time working parents, but less so for others, Proctor adds.

Beyond early learning, at-risk students in Texas are getting more attention. School principals must designate a teacher or counselor to administer personal graduation plans for students, according to Suzanne Marchman, spokeswoman of the Texas Education Agency. The plan identifies a student's educational goals; includes an intensive instruction program; and provides innovative methods to promote the student, including offering flexible scheduling or online instruction. A teacher or mentor monitors the student's progress throughout high school. The second requirement is the Intensive Instruction Program for any student who fails the state assessment test, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS. It works to get students to perform on grade level over time.

7. Involve families in students' learning at school and home in new and creative ways so they can help their children engage in healthy behaviors and stay involved in their education.

When Domenech was invited back to Fairfax to address Latino parents of one school, he was surprised the principal, who was not Latino, also spoke in Spanish. "Those parents were absolutely tickled and felt comfortable," he says. "This principal was making a huge attempt to communicate in their language. That's what schools and educators have to do. Those parents are not going to participate [in their child's schooling] because they are afraid. Schools have to bend over backwards, even if it's for no other reason than to say their native language is valuable."

Teachers and administrators should learn "Hello" or phrases in students' native language so they feel more accepted and proud of their heritage, Domenech adds.

At Ocoee High, parents are kept abreast of their children's assignments and grades via a Web site. And Armbruster reaches out to parents every other summer via "cottage meetings" in which he visits different communities to answer parents' questions. "It's on their turf," he says. "And they realize we are not this scary place."

8. Monitor students'' academic progress through various measures during the school year for a full picture of students' learning.

Hinojosa commends the NEA for "stepping up" with such ideas. Himself an advocate for improving the dropout problem, Hinojosa introduced with Davis the Graduation for All bill, which asks for up to $1 billion to improve adolescent literacy for at-risk sixth- through 12th-graders. If passed, the law would further require states to name objectives under an accountability system to improve graduation rates and then report those rates to their local education agencies.

In general, formative assessments, or those performed throughout the school year, keep track of student achievement and weaknesses. And technology has made that kind of assessment doable, Domenech adds. For example, McGraw-Hill has an online formative assessment program for K-6 students called Treasures, whereby teachers can test pupils on a regular basis and snag problems immediately instead of waiting until the end of the year.

9. Monitor, accurately report and push for reduced dropout rates by gathering accurate data for key student groups like ethnic and racial groups, establishing benchmarks in each state, and adopting standardized reporting developed by the National Governors Association.

There is not much debate on this end. At least 39 states are expected by 2010 to use NGA's Graduation Counts: A Compact on State High School Graduation Data formula. The formula uses a single system to determine dropouts, including a four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate that links data systems from preschool through postsecondary education.

Texas, which starting this year will have more rigorous graduation requirements, is already doing this with a sophisticated, longitudinal data system. It uses a number for each student, tracking progress on various achievement outcomes and following them wherever they move or graduate. Texas shifted its dropout calculation method last year to more closely align with national standards of the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education. For the first time, students will be counted as dropouts if they don't earn GEDs, pass TAKS, or if they never go to class in a district where they claimed to have transferred.

Despite Texas' system, Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis in Texas, a report by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, claims the state seriously inflated graduation rates, especially for blacks and Latinos, which Marchman disputes. For example, according to NCES's dropout calculations, if a student does not get a GED by a particular date, he or she is considered a dropout, Marchman says, but Texas' system did not count a student as a dropout as long as he or she was enrolled in a GED program.

10. Involve the entire community through family-friendly policies that provide release time for employees to attend parent-teacher conferences; work schedules that allow high school students to attend classes on time and be ready to learn, and adopt-a-school programs that encourage volunteerism.

One step to involving the community is through Learning to Finish, a new program of Pew Partnership for Civic Change to prepare eighth-graders for freshman year using local businesses, citizens and stores. Ensuring eighth-graders are prepared for high school is key. "Ninth grade is the threshold for dropping out," says Suzanne Morse, president of the Pew Partnership. "If you don't make it through ninth grade, you likely won't make it through the rest of high school.... And your job in the community is to get your eighth-graders prepared for ninth grade."

Although it just started in pilot programs in Shreveport, La., and Jacksonville, Fla., the program holds hope, Morse adds. There is much community buy-in from women's philanthropy groups as well as community foundations in Shreveport and Jacksonville. By 2008, 25 communities will use the program, calculating accurate dropout numbers and mobilizing all assets of the community, including not just big business but small stores and retired teachers. Community involvement could come in the way of setting up an after-school academy for students struggling with math. Local banks could set up a foundation for summer learning academies or pay for tutors. Coffee shops and local dry cleaners could put jars on counters to collect change for schools. Grocery stores could also teach students the metric system and math conversion skills via food packages and cans of soup, making lessons tangible to students.

"The message is: do not wait on the federal government or the state or local board to invest in this," Morse says. "For every nine seconds you wait, you've waited too long. We've been waiting 27 years since Nation at Risk and we have to do something and this is the year to do it."

11. Ensure educators have the necessary training and resources, including professional development focused on needs of diverse and at-risk students; the latest textbooks and computers; and safe, modern schools.

"I see how much money the private sector spends on private employees to get training and be successful, and schools ought to do the same," Domenech says. Teachers need training on cultural awareness as well as learning disabilities and pedagogy, he adds.

Orange County Public Schools uses the Ruby Payne training called A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which is also the name of Payne's first book. Helpful for educators dealing with students in poverty, who also tend to drop out the most, the lessons are based on learning the hidden rules that govern how people behave in their social class. The book also explores why students from generational poverty often fear being educated. In poverty, people are mainly driven by survival and relationships, and maintaining relationships can interfere with achievement. For example, attending college can mean giving up time with friends and family members, and this can elicit the fear of losing others.

"This is difficult for people in poverty because of the importance of relationships," the training states, "Being there for someone is as important as having those people there for you." To help such students stay motivated and inspired to go to college, administrators and teachers can treat them as problem solvers and not victims, and they can get to know them and celebrate every step.

12. Make high school a federal priority by calling on Congress to invest $10 billion over the next decade to support dropout prevention programs and support states that make high school graduation compulsory.

Proctor thinks $10 billion might be "understating" the problem. "I would say the intent is laudable but it would be a very complex task," he says. "I would say how we do that needs to be much more sharply focused before we can just do it."

"In general, most states, I think, like local control so their education is catered to the needs of the students in their states," Marchman says. Texas, unlike Idaho, for example, has to grapple with large numbers of migrant families, who move across the state in search of jobs, she notes.

And although much of the NEA's plan is pure common sense, it's still not being implemented. "So sometimes you have to hit people in the face with common sense," Domenech says, "and say, 'Let's do it!' "

Angela Pascopella is senior features editor.


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