TOPICS > Education

Graduation Report ‘Encouraging,’ But Many Schools Risk ‘Dropout Factory’ Status

November 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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New nationwide statistics show a rise in high school graduation rates, but there is still significant disparity between school districts in different parts of the country. Margaret Warner talks to the report's co-author, John Bridgeland, about what the findings mean.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: the high school dropout problem and what is being done about it. Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: After years of decline, high school graduation rates in the U.S. are on the upswing. That news came from a new report issued today by the America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit group founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

At an event in Washington with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Powell said he was encouraged, but there’s much more to be done.

COLIN POWELL, founding chair, America’s Promise Alliance: So, what we have to do is get everybody in the country, businesses, political organizations, nonprofit organizations, to all come together in a coordinated way to get into the lives of our kids, to get into our schools, give those schools resources that the kids need in order to be successful in life.

There’s no child that starts out in life wanting to be unsuccessful. No child starts out wanting to be a dropout.

MARGARET WARNER: Among the good news, the national graduation rate hit 75 percent in 2008, up from 72 percent in 2001. And the number of so-called dropout factories, high schools where fewer than 60 percent of freshmen graduate four years later, declined to 1,750 in 2008, down from some 2,000 in 2002.

Twenty-nine states improved their graduation rates through such approaches as setting up early warning systems to flag struggling students, raising the compulsory attendance age, taking driver’s licenses away from dropouts, and getting parents more involved.

But, in 18 states, graduation rates didn’t move. And three states, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, saw their rates slip significantly. Researchers also found a persistent gap based on race and ethnicity. More than 80 percent of white students graduated in 2008, but fewer than 65 percent of Hispanic or black students did.

And for a closer look at the findings and what lessons they suggest nationwide, we turn to one of the report’s authors, John Bridgeland. He’s written extensively on the dropout problem and is chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm in Washington.

Mr. Bridgeland, welcome.

JOHN BRIDGELAND, CEO, Civic Enterprises: Nice to be with you.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us more, first of all, about these dropout factories, which account for half of all the dropouts in the country. What do they have in common?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Well, Margaret, interestingly and tragically, these are places where it’s about a 50/50 proposition whether you graduate from high school.

So, imagine being a student in a school where the expectation is so low that half of your classmates are not finding their way through the graduation line.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, are they big? Are they small? Are they in cities, rural areas?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Disproportionately found in urban school districts, but they’re also in suburbs and towns and even in rural areas. So, we have to keep our eye in schools across the country, and not just focus on our urban school districts.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have also polled extensively, talked extensively with students who have been dropouts.

What do they share? What do they have in common?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: It is interesting. After decades of research on the dropout problem, we discovered that no one had ever talked to the customers, to the dropouts themselves.

And so we did so all across the country in big cities like Los Angeles and Boston, but also in small towns like St. Clairsville, Ohio. And what we discovered was that these young people have extraordinary dreams. They wanted to be doctors and nurses and journalists.

And one girl from Philadelphia in our focus group said she wanted to be an astrophysicist. And she…

MARGARET WARNER: She was a dropout?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: And she, at the age of 16, was literally on the streets.

And what we realized was that a lot of these young people, yes, they had academic challenges. Yes, they had extraordinary family circumstances that caused them to have hardship. But a lot of them didn’t see the relevance between what they were learning in the classroom to what they wanted to be in life, to their dreams.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in our setup piece, we described generically what some of the states that improved their graduation rates did…

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: … or improved their dropout numbers.

But give us a specific example. Pick a state that really turned their numbers around. What did they do?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Let’s take the leader, the state of Tennessee.

The governor and state leadership said: We need 269,000 college graduates to fill our work force needs in the state of Tennessee. So, with that pool of the economic need, it helped galvanize the state. Then they got good data. And they focused their efforts on the five urban school districts in Tennessee that disproportionately had the most dropouts.

And they mobilized outstanding educators, leaders to help principals, and, most importantly, perhaps, the community-based supports that these individual students need day in and day out to stay on track.

MARGARET WARNER: And did the black students or non-white students improve as much as the white students?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: The good news is that about a third of high school dropouts — there have been about one-third of all public high school students who have dropped out and about 50 percent of minorities. But we have seen good progress among African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. And this report showcases that good news.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us another example, for instance, a specific school that was a dropout factory.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Interestingly, Richmond, Indiana, a small town of about 40,000 on the border of Ohio and Indiana, learned in 2005 that it was one of these dropout factory high schools.

The community was outraged. They got organized. Thirty organizations across government, schools, business, community-based organizations worked together. And they created something called the Wayne County Youth Development Plan that targeted the young people most at risk, made sure they attended school, addressed behavior issues, and made sure they had the mentors and the tutors and the supports, like communities and schools and City Year provide to mobilize the mentors and tutors to help these young people stay on track.

MARGARET WARNER: So, are these success stories — or these approaches, can they be replicated nationally? I mean, how realistic is that? Some of them sound expensive, with all this individual attention.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Interestingly, it’s not just about resources. It’s about setting clear goals.

And we’re encouraged that, under federal law now, for the first time, every state, every school district, every school will have to report a common calculation for high school graduation rates. In addition, under federal law, they will be accountable for meeting those rates and actually making progress every year to make something called adequately yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, America’s Promise had set this goal of having a 90 percent graduation rate within just the next 10 years.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Yes. Right.

MARGARET WARNER: This progress, while impressive, isn’t fast enough to meet that.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: No. We actually have to accelerate our progress fivefold from where we have — the progress we have made over the last decade…

MARGARET WARNER: So, how do you do that?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: … which means, basically, I think we have the leverage now of accountability, that states and schools have to set these goals and targets.

Second, we’re going to the rapid development of early warning systems. You can predict as early as third and fourth grade students who will drop out from high school.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you have to start then?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: So, we start early. We get — we identify the students who are most in need, and then we mobilize. I think the power of what America’s Promise is doing is, they’re mobilizing mentors and tutors through Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Clubs, all these community-based organizations, that can provide students the wrap-around supports that they need.

Schools can’t do it alone.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, good luck, on behalf of all of us, John Bridgeland.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Thank you so much, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Good to be with you.