Dropouts: Talk is cheap (but helpful)

A recent webinar sponsored by the Hechinger Institute of Teacher College at Columbia University examined the newly released report, Graduating America addressing the high school dropout crisis in America. The authors shared some sobering research including the revelation that about 17 states account for almost 70% of the nation’s high school dropouts.

Distressing as these figures are for the nation, I focused on what is happening here in Mississippi. Not only are we one of the 17 top dropout states, Mississippi is one of eight that have what the report’s authors call “statewide spread.” These are states in which the number of high schools that graduate 60% or fewer students is not limited to any one particular city or area.

Mississippi uses the National Governors Association (NGA) method of computing dropouts: Count each cohort of 1st year 9th graders and track them to determine how many graduate in four years. Of course, as former State Superintendent Hank Bounds pointed out, this method misses the approximately 2000 students we know left the 8th grade and never showed up in the 9th grade. Using the NGA method, in 2007, when the state started its dropout prevention initiative, 10,000 students per year were dropping out (that’s approximately a bus load of students per day). According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, they are part of the 7,000 students per day who dropout nationwide.

While these overwhelming numbers might discourage some, researcher Robert Balfanz of the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins, argues that initiatives such as the administration’s Race to the Top give us a “once in a generation opportunity to do something about the problem.” Hmmm.

I found it interesting that the representative from the U.S. Department of Education, Carmel Martin, several times used the phrase “dropout factories” that Balfanz helped popularize with his 2007 study of 2,000 schools around the country. According to Martin, although over the past three years, more schools have entered some type of restructuring than have exited it successfully. Currently, 30% of the schools in such restructuring are rural schools. That matters in a state like Mississippi where there are no “megaschools” with over 2,000 students. The vast majority of our high schools have populations between 300-800; and many of them are the only high school in their town. Unfortunately, according to the report, many of those are the “dropout factories.”

We know what hasn’t worked in trying to close the seeping wounds in our public high schools. Leaving most of these troubled schools and districts on their own to deal with the problem is failed strategy number one. Trying to impose a statewide, uniform, quick-fix reform program is another dead end. The least helpful approach is the [perpetual] educational blame game: “If only the parents…” “If only those pre-school programs….” “If only those elementary teachers….” “If only that middle school…” “If only we had more [fill in the blank]…”

These high dropout schools are often the focal points of their communities, especially in rural areas, serving not only as the epitome of education, but also as social and civic centers. The legacy of so much social and cultural significance can make these institutions difficult to change. Nevertheless, Graduating America calls for transforming or replacing these “dropout factories,” while the USDOE laments how few states use “aggressive tactics” in dealing with underperforming high schools.

 Looking at the suggestions offered in the webinar, however, one wonders what real options there are to achieve these transformations. Hire new leaders and staff? In a state that has struggled with chronic teacher and administrator shortages for years, districts can’t find enough new talent to fill the existing vacancies, much less those produced by a total school staff replacement.  In towns where the school is a major (or the major) employer, total replacement poses not only logistical, but a major political-economic challenges.  Closing the schools and sending the children elsewhere makes little sense educationally or economically. Within a 75 mile radius of my home here in the Delta, there are approximately 22 high schools in 18 towns, with an average dropout rate of 25%, an average graduation rate of 66%, and a 36% truancy rate (truancy defined as a student having five or more absences from school).

Likewise, closing the schools and restarting them as charters is not a workable option for the majority of parents or communities in Mississippi where charter laws are still quite restrictive (there is only one charter school in the state), due in large part to the lingering legacy of segregation.  Overall, according to Balfanz, some schools targeted for these “aggressive tactics” have met with limited success; in those that have not improved, failure is usually because the strategies were implemented too quickly, without proper planning or data analysis. Experiments with credit recovery for students who are at risk of dropping out have received mixed reviews, but are generally viewed as not rigorous enough.

Oddly, the last option mentioned, transformation is the most likely one to work in places like Mississippi. Report sponsors,Every One Graduates and Jobs for the Future argue that such changes will require new instructional programs along with flexible and intensive support from the Federal and state agencies.  The authors of Graduating America also would like to see a requirement for Race to the Top recipients to use data analysis to develop locally specified plans for dropout prevention. They are pushing strategies that would increase capacity of schools and districts to implement reform strategies, more support for innovation to address school design issues that are not covered under current models, and targeted help for communities “too big to fail.” [What does this make the rest of us? “Okay, to fail”? “Just the right size for failure”?]

Despite its many challenges, Mississippi became one of the first states to tackle the dropout problem on a statewide level with the launch in 2005-06 of its “Get on the Bus” Dropout Prevention Campaign.  On the plus side, the initiative brings together educators, businesses, government agencies, students, parents, and other community members to form an active coalition to fight the dropout problem from many angles. The initiative began with a high-profile series of public seminars and a media blitz which have helped to bring the issue into public view.

Beyond the media push, however, things get much less substantive.

The state is requiring each district to develop and implement its own plan to actually get the job done within the timeframe set by the state with a promise of some technical support, and assistance in applying for federal grants. These local plans are heavy on public awareness, “dropout recovery” projects (getting kids into GED or alternative education programs sponsored by the district which keeps the Average Daily Attendance at acceptable levels); dropout prevention transition programs, and promises to use research and data analysis. But, will these steps be enough save thousands of young people from losing their first best chance at education?

What is noticeably absent from these plans is a commitment to really LISTEN to what these students have been telling us for some time now about why they quit school and to correct those issues. The current direction, though heartening as a beginning, is still built on the philosophy that we just need to convince the kids to stay (or terrify them into doing so with scary stories about life without a degree). Such an approach conveniently lets us adults off the hook for what we have done to contribute to pushing students out of public education. Correcting those issues would be costly: economically and politically. Bringing the dropout crisis to light is an important first step—in a marathon.

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