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Fewer Schools Deemed 'Dropout Factories'

The number of U.S. schools with such poor graduation rates that they are known as "dropout factories" fell by 6.4 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to a report released today.

In 2008, the nation had 1,746 schools with graduation rates no higher than 60 percent. That number fell by 112, to 1,634, the following year. From 2008 to 2009, there were 183,701 fewer students attending these low-performing schools, an 8 percent drop.

The numbers are detailed in an update to the November 2010 report "Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic." The update is being rolled out in conjunction with the Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington this week.

Last fall's report detailed the change from 2002 to 2008 and found a 13 percent decline over six years, from 2,007 "dropout factory" schools in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008. The report was authored by the Johns Hopkins University Everyone Graduates Center, America's Promise Alliance, and Civic Enterprises, which are hosting the gathering along with the Alliance for Excellent Education. Overall, the number of students attending dropout factories has declined from 2.6 million in 2002 to 2.1 million in 2009, nearly a 20 percent improvement.

Here's the breakdown of the change in "dropout factories" by region from 2008 to 2009:

  • West—Down 12.5 percent (313 schools in 2008; 274 in 2009)
  • Midwest—Down 8.2 percent (269 schools in 2008; 247 in 2009)
  • Southeast—Down 4.8 percent (912 schools in 2008; 868 in 2009)
  • Northeast—Down 2.8 percent (252 schools in 2008; 245 in 2009)

Looking at the state-by-state picture, 18 states had a decline of three or more dropout factories, 23 essentially stayed the same, and nine had increases of three or more. Some of the state highlights in the total number of schools with a promoting-power ratio of 60 percent or less:

  • California (decline of 25)
  • South Carolina (-25)
  • Illinois (-20)
  • North Carolina (-16)
  • Georgia (+10)
  • New York (+10)
  • Ohio (+5)

Rural districts experienced a 15.5 percent decline in the number of schools falling into the "dropout factory" definition, according to the new report. The number of town schools dropped by 7.5 percent, city schools declined by 3.4 percent, and suburban districts saw the number of their low-performing schools go down by 4.7 percent.

The report cites developments in the effort to lower the dropout rate, including requirements that schools calculate high school graduation rates by using a common formula, and that they set goals and meet annual targets. It also cites federal incentives to improve standards and efforts by states and districts to better track student progress.

To address the dropout challenge, the Civic Marshall Plan, developed as part of the Grad Nation initiative, identifies opportunities in changing federal policies. The report released today includes recommendations to help ensure that the national goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the class of 2020 is met, including:

  • Develop high standards to graduate all students college- or career-ready.
  • Focus investment on the lowest-performing middle and high schools though expansion of federal School Improvement Grants and greater emphasis on secondary schools in existing federal programs.
  • Hold states, districts, and schools accountable for graduating all students from high school.
  • Shift away from a one-size-fits-all school improvement system to one with flexibility and data-driven decisionmaking.
  • Address the factors that influence student achievement with wraparound services.
  • Provide federal support for district, community, and statewide efforts to raise high school graduation rates.
  • Strengthen schools by funding national-service efforts, such as the Education Corps.

Information in the report was based on data from the U.S. Department of Education's Common Core of Data, at the National Center for Education Statistics.

The report will be discussed at the meeting this morning. Look for updates here.

UPDATE (9 a.m.): At the opening session of the Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington this morning, Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said that when people say there are factors or reasons that prevent students from going to college, they are merely making excuses and something needs to be done.

"We need not only to hold failing schools accountable, we need to help turn those schools around," Barnes said. "Building a grad nation requires all of us getting to work and fast.

"Education is no longer a pathway to opportunity. It's a prerequisite. We need to make the hard choices and investments to make sure all children are prepared to succeed."

For a state-by-state glance at graduation rates and changes from the Everyone Graduates Center, click here.

UPDATE (9:45 a.m.): At today's morning plenary session, Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said the new 2008-09 data show new progress in the Midwest and West, as well as in rural areas and cities, "This is an indication that progress is accelerating and spreading," he said.

To improve even more, Balfanz suggested local entities use new comparison data on graduation rates to shape targeted efforts, follow students over time with longitudinal data to see how their high school success is linked to their postsecondary success, and look at case studies of schools that have turned around their graduation rates using enhanced student supports and early-warning systems.

Also speaking this morning, John Bridgeland, president and chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, said researchers are learning from the new data and refining strategies to improve graduation rates. The goal of increasing the nation's high school graduation rate for this year's 3rd graders who will graduate in 2020 to 90 percent is "clear and achievable," he said.

Since it is known who is at risk of dropping out, why, and where they go to school, the approach is focused, said Bridgeland. The Civic Marshall Plan establishes practical benchmarks along the way to track and support students making significant transitions. "We will focus in like a laser on dropout-factory high schools and look at the feeder middle schools and elementary schools," said Bridgeland.

To have 600,000 more diplomas for the class of 2020 than that of 2008, students need to be reading on grade level and there should be early-warning and intervention systems. Bridgeland said many schools have early-warning systems in place in 9th grade, but that's too late. They should be as early as the 4th or 5th grade. Mentors can also help off-track students, and states should raise the compulsory age that students are allowed to drop out, he suggested.

Bridgeland said that every spring there will be a Grad Nation annual update to show progress in meeting the benchmarks, state by state, in improving graduation rates. "We want to stay accountable," he said. "We want this to be grounded in reality."


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