A significant decrease in Southern “dropout factories” – high schools in which 60 percent or fewer of incoming freshmen classes go on to graduate – helped drive a slight increase in the nation’s graduation rate during the past decade.
The number of dropout factories declined from 2,007 to 1,746 between 2002 and 2008, according to a report released today, which was co-authored by Johns Hopkins University research scientist Robert Balfanz and John Bridgeland, president and CEO of community development group Civic Enterprises.
Meanwhile, the overall graduation rate jumped from 72 percent to 75 percent.
The report, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, shows 83 percent of the schools removed from the dropout factory list are in only nine Southern states and 79 percent of improved schools were in suburbs or towns. The West, mostly due to declining graduation rates in California and Nevada, saw a net addition of 21 more dropout schools since 2002.
“This all speaks to different levels of action, attention and success at state and local levels,” said Balfanz. “Places that worked hard to address the challenge in sustained ways made progress, places that tried one or two things saw modest gains or stayed flat and those that did not pay attention or expand efforts got worse,” he wrote in an email.
Jay Smink, director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, has ideas about progress in some of the southern states. In Tennessee, he credited efforts to improve professional development of teachers; and in Georgia it was a commitment to work with high-risk students by assigning a graduation coach to every single high school and middle school.
Bridgeland, a former staffer of President George W. Bush, said the improvements seen in nine southern states should be qualified by pointing out these were the places that had the worst rates to begin with and therefore the most progress to be made.
“Having said that, it was a combination of strong state leadership, getting good data, targeting the dropout factory school districts, and then providing supports to the principals, the teachers and the students,” Bridgeland said. “It was a weave of interventions that really sustained over time that really galvanized progress in the South.”
Balfanz, who first coined the term dropout factory in his 2004 report on America’s dropout crisis, was clear to point out in an interview that improvements, while significant, are focused in the South and in suburbs and towns, meaning vast regions in the East, West and Midwest remained the same or worsened, and many urban environments showed no improvements as well.
America’s Promise hosted a discussion of the report at pollster Gallup's headquarters in Washington today, featuring brief comments from America’s Promise’s co-chairs – Gen. Colin Powell and his wife, Alma; U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan; Joel Klein, who recently resigned as New York City schools chancellor; and outgoing Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).
Duncan called the report “required reading” for anyone interested in education reform, Alma Powell called it a “little ray of sunshine” and Colin Powell chose the words, “an inspiration to do more.”
Outgoing officeholders Klein and Bredesen were a little more frank in their comments. Klein invoked Woody Allen, saying repeating an action and expecting different results is insanity – referring to repeatedly failing districts. While Bredesen, who governed Tennessee during a period of 15 percent graduation rate improvement, tops in the U.S., warned of the nation’s newfound anti-Washington sentiment and new Republican takeover on the Hill as potential obstacles for education change.
Smink called the data “convincing” and said he was hardly surprised to see it released right now. “I know America’s Promise and political leaders are under pressure to show some significant gains as a result of the efforts that are being put forward,” Smink said. “But if you look at the data that they’ve looked at, it’s obviously convincing or they wouldn’t have put it out.”
Improvement in the South
The following nine states significantly reduced the number of high schools where 60 percent or fewer of incoming freshmen classes go on to graduate: