Three states, Texas, Mississippi and North Carolina, have done the most comprehensive jobs of addressing the dropout problem, says a new report by Jobs For the Future. (Six pillars of effective dropout prevention and recovery, An assessment of current state policy and how to improve it.)
Texas and North Carolina have made progress on all 6 strategies identified in the report as the major themes of new legislation and policies. These strategies are the 6 pillars of effective dropout prevention and recovery, the report.says.
Below are brief descriptions of the 6 model policy elements along with examples of states’ innovative approaches to addressing the dropout problem.
Pillar #1. Reinforce the right to a public education
One reason kids drop out of school is because, under some laws, they can. Allowing young people to drop out of high school at 16 or earlier increasingly is seen by states as an obsolete policy given the demands of today’s economy. One trend is for states to change the laws so that students are required to stay in school until they earn a diploma or turn 18. A total of 15 states have adopted this requirement (7 since 2002). Another 5 states have raised the compulsory age for attending school to 17.
Increasing the age for compulsory attendance of school, however, is not enough. States need to do more to encourage schools and districts to offer older students options that keep them in school. Many states have laws entitling students to a free public education until age 21, but few provide funding or otherwise encourage schools and districts to provide dropouts with options that make it easier for them to return to school and complete their education.
What’s needed: State policies that make districts responsible for giving older students options for accelerating learning and earning credits
Model policies and programs: 6 states, California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and Texas, include credit recovery programs in their dropout legislation New York City’s 22 Young Adult Borough Centers use school buildings after school hours to operate programs for youth who are at least halfway to graduation
Pillar #2. Count and account for dropouts
Among the 6 key elements highlighted in this report, states have made the most progress in counting and accounting for dropouts: 32 states have mandated enhanced data collection or reporting, established goals for improving graduation rates, or implemented better systems to identify students at risk of dropping out.
The “4-year cohort” rate endorsed by the National Governors Association’s Graduation Counts Compact is being used by 22 states. This rate tracks outcomes for an entering ninth-grade class over 4 years. Eleven more states plan to begin using this method by 2011.
Beyond collecting data, states have been using data to set goals for reducing dropout rates. Mississippi set the goal of an 85% graduation rate by 2018-19 and Nevada wants to increase its graduation rate by 10%. Kentucky set a goal of reducing the statewide dropout rate by 50%.
Several states have used data to develop early-warning systems to flag students at risk for dropping out. The state of Louisiana is a trailblazer in this area. Students are flagged if they are absent 10% of the days they are enrolled, are over-age for their grade level or have grade point averages that have decreased by at least 0.50. The system automatically emails results to district and school leaders twice a month.
What’s needed: Using data to hold schools and districts accountable for failing to graduate students.
Model policies and programs: Indiana requires schools to report students who are off track after 9th grade and mandates that guidance counselors develop a plan to get the student on track to graduate.
Massachusetts created the Graduation and Dropout Prevention and Recovery Commission to study best practices both statewide and nationwide California requires its state superintendent to report to the legislature annually on dropout and graduation rates and to make data for each school and district available to the public.
Pillar #3. Use graduation and on-track rates to trigger transformative reform
Of course it’s important to provide at-risk students with individual interventions to help them graduate, but the report emphasizes that it’s also important for schools to address underlying systemic issues. This is especially true for schools with high concentrations of students who are falling off track.
Many school reform initiatives focus heavily on elementary and middle schools rather than high schools. School reform initiatives are seldom aligned with dropout prevention and recovery efforts.
“The typical result is that several disjointed initiatives proceed on parallel tracks, using up resources that could be spent more strategically,” the report says. Ideally, individual interventions are coupled with more systemic reform efforts.
What’s needed: Reform initiatives that focus on dropout prevention and recovery
Model policies and programs: Texas has one of the most coherent and far-reaching strategies to put dropouts and struggling students at the center of high school reform. The state provides funds to schools for recovering dropouts, provides intensive summer school programming in high-poverty districts and has set up The Ninth Grade Transition Program.
California’s Educational Clinic Program offers chronically truant students and dropouts an opportunity to earn credits toward a diploma or to prepare for the GED.
Pillar #4. Invent new models
High dropout rates provide fairly dramatic evidence that traditional high school models aren’t working for everyone. Several states have taken the cue and started innovating to create new venues for education that better accommodate high-risk teens and other high school students.
A few states have invested in developing new school models that re-engage dropouts either with direct funding or through competitive grant programs that are open to nonprofits and postsecondary institutions. Students not only can earn their high school diploma but can get a start on their college careers.
Among the leaders in this effort is New York City, which has moved aggressively to replace large low-performing schools with new small schools designed by teams of educators and community partners. “Almost 200 of these high schools consistently post graduation rates of 75% or above, nearly 20 percentage points higher than the city average and often twice the rate of the schools they replaced,” the report says.
The city has also invested in 42 new “transfer schools” for students who are significantly over-age and undercredited. Overall, these strategies have contributed to a 15.2% rise in the city’s graduation rate over the past 8 years.
What’s needed: Designated entities for developing and implementing “Back on Track” models, using competitive grants and other such funding mechanisms to encourage continuing innovation and the expansion of successful models.
Model programs and policies: The North Carolina New Schools Project helps local community colleges and school boards partner to establish innovative programs for students who would benefit from accelerated instruction; it has developed about 62 early college high schools and web-based platforms.
Twenty-two North Carolina districts have created 43 autonomous schools that combine a selected curricular focus in academic work with adult, real-world experiences.
Texas has created 48 early college high schools and 46 technology, science, engineering, and math (T-STEM) academies; at early colleges, students can graduate high school with up to two years of college credit tuition-free.
Pillar #5. Accelerate preparation for postsecondary success
Opportunities for acceleration have long been available to advanced students but are equally important for those who are struggling in high school. “Acceleration enables struggling students to catch up on skills and credits while they also gain valuable experiences with college preparatory and college-level coursework and expectations,” the report says.
There is growing recognition among states that dropouts and off-track students benefit from acceleration—not remediation—in their curriculum and instruction. The most common acceleration strategies include dual enrollment, advanced placement, credit recovery and online learning. Dual enrollment allows high school students to enroll in college coursework and credit recovery allows students to build their skills and credits at an accelerated pace toward on-time graduation.
What’s needed: To include “off-track” students in strategies for accelerating high school completion and preparation for postsecondary success
Model programs and policies: Indiana and Rhode Island authorize “fast track to college” programs in which participating students can earn a high school diploma while earning credits toward a credential. These fast-track programs target high school students 17 and older as well as out-of-school youth age 19 and up.
Several states have moved to increase at-risk youths’ access to Advanced Placement courses. Arkansas requires that Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses be made available to students in the most academically troubled areas through two-way interactive television.
Florida has been a leader in providing online learning to at-risk students. Beginning in 2009-10, each school district must provide students in dropout prevention programs, career and technical programs, students in the juvenile justice system and other eligible students with the option of a virtual instruction program using online and distance learning.
Pillar #6. Provide stable funding for systemic reform
So far states have done more to identify the scope of the dropout problem than to fund programs to help address it. Implementing new dropout prevention or recovery programs—especially whole-school reform designs and accelerated learning options—requires stable, continuous and substantial funding.
A total of 21 states have provided new state appropriations to support dropout prevention and recovery option. This has been done with one of two funding approaches: New legislative or budgetary appropriations or shifting existing resources to cover new activities. One state, Colorado, uses private and philanthropic contributions to raise funds for one of its dropout prevention initiatives.
Unfortunately, the report notes that all 8 states that recognize the importance of providing off-track students and returning dropouts with access to dual enrollment rely on existing funding streams to support these strategies. “Lack of new funding can undermine otherwise sound policy and hamper the pace at which new strategies can be implemented,” the report says.
What’s needed: New and reliable funding sources for systemic reforms addressing the dropout problem
Model programs and policies: Arizona stipulates that 56% of gaming income be used to fund the Arizona instrument that effects systemic change and supports statewide expansions of successful models.
Georgia places graduation coaches in low-performing schools; California has block grants specifically to fund dropout specialists where more than 50% of the student population qualifies for school breakfast and lunch or receives Title I funding.
Texas, which has invested $10 million in dropout reduction and recovery since 2007, is in the third cycle of its Collaborative Dropout Reduction Program and its Dropout Recovery Pilot Program. The state offers incentive funding to grantees as their students obtain college credits.
“Six Pillars of Effective Dropout Prevention and Recovery, An Assessment of Current State Policy and How To Improve It,” by Cheryl Almeida et al., Jobs For The Future, September 2010. Access report here: http://www.jff.org/sites/default/files/DropoutBrief-090810.pdf