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AERA Continued: Dropout Factories

In the fall, the AP reported that 1 in 10 US high schools are “dropout factories.” At AERA, Robert Balfanz provided an overview of Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools' research that led to the AP article.

Central to the “dropout factory” is the idea of promoting power. “Promoting power” compares the number of 12th-graders in a high school to the number of 9th-graders three years earlier. While this is not a direct measure of the graduation rate, it is a decent indicator, and can be calculated for every school in America from the NCES Common Core of Data. Balfanz and colleagues labeled schools with promoting power of less than 60% - i.e. of 100 freshman enrolled in the fall of 2004, fewer than 60 are still enrolled in the fall of 2007 – as dropout factories. These schools are located primarily in urban centers and in the South and Southwest, and 25% of them are the only high school in their town. Schools with high concentrations of minority students are overrepresented: 56% of schools that enroll more than 90% African-American or Hispanic students are classified as dropout factories.

What I didn’t hear in the fall news coverage on dropout factories was a consideration of how out-of-school factors drive the dropout rate. Balfanz did a nice job of not only blaming schools, but the broader social policy context in which schools and students are located. As Balfanz wrote in an article available at the gradgap.org website:

The teachers, administrators, and students in these schools are often going to heroic lengths to succeed despite long odds. The fault lies not with the schools or their teachers or students but with the intended and unintended consequences of decisions made at the city, state, and federal levels to create a subset of under-resourced, over-challenged, and non-supported schools that primarily educate low-income and minority students.

Balfanz reviewed, and then generally dismissed, three popular approaches to reforming these struggling schools. Closing schools may be necessary in some cases, Balfanz said. However, many school closings replace one under-resourced, struggling school with another. And for schools that are the only high school in town, it’s a difficult sell. A second popular remedy is reconstitution, which Balfanz argued has no track record of success.

A third solution is the creation of small schools, which Balfanz was optimistic about in cities with high concentrations of human capital (New York and Boston). But he warned that these schools have the potential to displace the students who would have attended the old “dropout factory” otherwise (see here, here, and here on displacement in New York). Instead of these three silver bullet solutions, Balfanz argued that we need a “wholesale transformation” of these schools, which includes a mix of schoolwide, targeted, and intensive interventions. He didn’t go into great depth about what this transformation would look like, though he did mention an “early warning system” – one that closely monitors grades, attendance, and behavior for students who are at-risk of dropping out – as an important component of high school reform.

Of particular interest was Balfanz’s discussion of how our “counterproductive accountability system” creates pressure to hold students back so they don’t affect the schools’ scores, or to transfer students so they don’t count against the school’s graduation rate. Balfanz mentioned that an "on-track to graduate indicator" might be a better accountability metric, but didn’t go into detail about how this indicator could be used for accountability purposes.

Interesting session overall, but I was left wondering whether the dropout factory press splash actually moved this debate forward, or was just another “our schools are failing” report that paved the way for more school closings that often leave nothing better in the dropout factory’s place. I also wanted more detail about what a "wholesale transformation" looks like on the ground.

Image credit: inmagine.com

I was at that session, but I think the "wholesale transformation" idea is part of the problem. At another session I attended, one researcher (and I wish I could give credit, but I haven't yet gone back through my 5 days' worth of notes!) observed that reform tended too often to involve instituting a large number of major changes at once-"all reforms implemented at the same time and for all schools" in a district or group of targeted schools. Instead, we should be looking more closely at the context and circumstances of the problem school-by-school and then matching the solution to the problem.

One-size-fits-all reform agendas are probably no more effective than one-size-fits-all large comprehensive high schools.

I was at that session too, and one of Balfanz's points was that identifying these dropout factories was a way of avoiding the one-size-fits-all approach. These are only 2,000 schools (out of about 19,000 high schools in the US), so they can be targeted for these interventions.

I was at the session -- it wasn't *that* well attended; is the entire audience going to post here?

I, too, was struck by the difference between the press coverage and his AERA session. The AERA presentation was much more reasoned and measured; the press coverage, as you noted, was much more shallow and hysterical.

I really wanted to ask him why he'd moved from studying promoting power (which he's done over the past few years) to creating press releases about "dropout factories" complete with lists of schools, sorted by state, essentially encouraging shallow, histrionic coverage by mainstream local press outlets. But the moment for my question passed, and it would have been kind of jarring to ask it, so I let it go. But I still wonder.

He's certainly more famous as the guy who has the annual list of Dropout Factories than he was as the researcher who studied promoting power.

I wish I had been able to go to that session. "Promoting power" has been a term (and a measure) used since the early 1960s, and while huge differences in it suggest that something's going on, it's probably not a sensitive indicator of small differences.

Is it really such a mystery as to why urban schools with a high percent of poor, at-risk, minority students are "dropout factories?"

Would anyone really place school high on their list of priorities in life if they were: Homeless? Without parents? Constantly living in fear for your safety or your life? Living without heat or enough food? Attending a dangerous school? Living with no positive role models in your life/ etc., etc.?

These circumstancees go miles beyond the capabilities of schools and teachers. A much broader support network is necessary to even come close to addressing the needs of many of these kids.

I was at the session, too.

(j/k. Funny reason I wasn't there. One guess).

Anyhow, I read and reread the post, and was left wondering about the word "accountability" in the next to last paragraph. Who do these schools need to be accountable to? Researchers? Government agencies?

I don't see how creating a better metric gives any sense of control back to local administrators, teachers, students, parents. I think it just fine tunes punishment. Am I missing something obvious?

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Jonathan: I was at the session, too. (j/k. Funny reason I read more
  • Paul Hoss: Is it really such a mystery as to why urban read more
  • Sherman Dorn: I wish I had been able to go to that read more
  • Kate: I was at the session -- it wasn't *that* well read more
  • Bob: I was at that session too, and one of Balfanz's read more




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