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U.S. Schools Make Progress, but ‘Dropout Factories’ Persist

In the world of education reform, several U.S. school districts have made significant changes over the last decade, including coming to grips with dropout problems. But the pace of improvement is too slow and uneven to meet the national goals set by the Department of Education and President Obama, according to a new report from America’s Promise Alliance.

The report, entitled “Building a Grad Nation,” shows that while there were fewer so-called “dropout factories” (schools where less than 60 percent of students graduate in four years) in 2008 than in 2002, at least 25 percent of all public high school students and close to 40 percent of minority students (defined as African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians) continue to fail to graduate with their class.

The number of dropout factory high schools fell from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008, the report finds.

But there are persistent disparities between racial and ethnic groups: 91 percent of Asian, 81 percent of white, 64 percent of Hispanic, 64 percent of American Indian and 62 percent of African-American students graduated in 2008.

Big gains were made however, especially in Tennessee and New York, where high school graduation rates jumped 15 and 10 percentage points respectively.

In Tennessee, the report credited strong leadership from Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and Republican state lawmakers who passed a law requiring 15- to 18-year-old students to remain in school and make progress — or have their driver’s license suspended. Tennessee also used the nation’s first value-added assessment system to gauge school performance, and experimented with tying teacher pay to their performance.

More findings from the report:

  • Twenty-nine states increased graduation rates, 18 states remained essentially the same and three states – Arizona, Nevada and Utah – experienced “noticeable declines” in their graduation rates.

  • Southern states such as Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama led the way in closing or improving the worst schools.

  • In Nevada, a combination of factors may have adversely impacted graduation rates. The authors cited significant population growth; a 341 percent increase in English language learners; a shortage of high-quality teachers in high-poverty schools; a stressed and undiversified economy; and a labor market that temporarily made it attractive for young adults to work in construction, hospitality and other fields that did not necessitate a diploma.

The report found that some urban school districts, which typically have the highest concentration of students attending failing schools, made effective changes. Researchers looked at the 100 largest cities, which collectively account for one quarter of the nation’s dropouts. Newark, New York City, Des Moines, Akron, Stockton, Calif., and Tampa Hillsborough all saw improvements of between 17 and 25 percentage points. Chicago also saw gains, but Los Angeles did not improve and Las Vegas regressed.

The data from the urban districts, as well as the rural and suburban environments demonstrates “that in areas where progress occurred it was not the result of a single strategy or magic bullet, but rather a weave of multiple reform efforts, sustained, integrated, and improved over time, typically involving multi-sector collaboration,” the authors wrote.

Best practices described in the report include improving data, early warning and intervention systems; setting clear and high academic and graduation standards; enhancing adult supports inside and outside the classroom; parental engagement; and connecting research on what works with teacher training and school administration.

The report’s sponsor, America’s Promise Alliance, was founded by retired Gen. Colin Powell and is chaired by his wife, Alma Powell. The organization has partnered with others such as The United Way to propose a “Civic Marshall Plan” to get the right support to the right students.

“The United States is turning a corner in meeting the high school dropout epidemic,” the Powells wrote in the report. “The stakes are higher than ever — for our children, families, and prosperity as a nation — in a globally competitive world.”

The Civic Marshall Plan’s goals include 90 percent of students graduating from high school and obtaining at least one year of postsecondary training by 2020.

For more analysis, we ran the numbers through our Patchwork Nation map to see how dropout factory schools fit into the nation’s 12 county types. The results suggest that while money matters, other factors such as home environment and community cohesiveness (the desire to not be a dropout in a tight-knit community) play large roles as well.

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