Progress on the dropout crisis?

The Johns Hopkins researchers who in 2002 counted 2,000 “dropout factories” in the U.S. — high schools that graduate fewer than 60 percent of their students within four years — are reporting that there’s been significant progress in reducing the number of those schools.

“The number of dropout factories fell by 13 percent – from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008,” says the report, released jointly with America’s Promise Alliance and Civic Enterprises. Also from 2002 to 2008, the overall high school graduation rate in the U.S. increased three percentage-points, to 75 percent.

New York and Tennessee increased their graduation rates the fastest — by 10 and 15 percentage-points, respectively. So what did they do right?

The country has fewer dropout factories

In New York City, one approach has been to close schools with low graduation rates. Besides causing an outcry among parents and teachers, this approach hasn’t always yielded all positive benefits, as we’ve written about previously. (For an in-depth look at the arduous process of closing a school, I recommend the GothamSchools series that has followed the effort to shut down Columbus High School in the Bronx along with two others.)

The Johns Hopkins researchers report that New York state has only 16 fewer dropout factories than it did in 2002 (the city alone is closing or in the process of closing 35 high schools), while about 61,000 fewer students are enrolled in dropout factories. Those numbers would suggest that something else was going on besides just closing schools.

The report cites various strategies, including early-warning systems that pinpoint students at risk of dropping out before they actually do so. Such systems also encourage districts to start monitoring at-risk students in middle school. In New York City’s case, one factor that seems to have been especially effective was creating alternate pathways for at-risk students so they could catch up on missed credits or return to school after dropping out.

In Tennessee, students who drop out of high school before age 18 don’t get to keep their driver’s license. The report also cites the state’s embrace of value-added assessment, its targeted support for struggling schools and its strong leadership.

This is not to say, however, that New York and Tennessee should sit back and be satisfied. Going from a 60 percent graduation rate to a 75 percent graduation rate is a different project than raising the rate from 75 percent to 90 percent — which is the target for the year 2020 set out in the report. The going is just about to get tough.