U.S. Dropout Guru

Asked how he finds time to research poor-performing schools, advocate for policy reform, operate his own built-from-scratch high school and oversee the model school’s replication across the country, Robert Balfanz credits his co-workers.

Sitting in his North Baltimore office, just off campus from his primary employer – Johns Hopkins University – Balfanz is asked how he shifted from statistical education researcher to the go-to public speaker on America’s high school dropout crisis. He shrugs and says, “It just happened. I actually like going below the radar screen.”

But pressed to identify who conceived the now widely used and angst-inducing phrase, “dropout factory,” referring to the 2,000 American high schools with the lowest graduation rates, Balfanz finally takes some credit.

“That was me,” he says with a slightly sheepish but still assured expression. “That was my metaphor for such a mechanical process; that you would have these schools that year after year reliably and consistently would have large number of kids coming in with below-level skills and waning motivation. They would come in, their attendance would get worse, they would fail their courses, they would not get promoted, they would repeat ninth grade, but nothing changed, and they would drop out then or go to an alternative school.

“And so reliable, predictable, continual – that seemed like a factory to me.”

Balfanz’s name has been cited continually since the 2004 report that highlighted the dropout factory concept, be it from his report Locating the Dropout Crisis; a later study identifying early warning dropout indicators in middle-school students; his whole school reform curriculum model – called Talent Development Secondary; or most recently, the announcement in August that Diplomas Now, a partnership among Talent Development, service corps City Year and site coordinator Communities in Schools, received a coveted $30 million i3 grant from the Department of Education.

But to understand how his work transcends mere numbers in a chart one needs only listen to Balfanz’s close ally, Bob Wise, president of the graduation improvement advocacy group Alliance for Excellent Education.

“There’s no one else I’ve seen combine as well the three functions of research, practice and policymaking,” says Wise, a former governor of West Virginia. “It’s like hitting the trifecta at the race track.”


School reform to dropout factories to school reform

After receiving his doctorate in education from the University of Chicago in 1995, Balfanz had a slight dilemma. His wife, whom he met when both were Chicago graduate students, was set to begin a graduate program in piano at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, leaving Balfanz in need of a job in Baltimore. That’s how he learned of an opening at the Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS), within the education department at Hopkins, which happened to be where he had received his bachelor’s degree in history.

CSOS, established in 1966 by renowned education sociologist James Coleman as a research and development unit to improve schools for high-poverty populations, initially hired Balfanz to develop further its year-old school reform pilot project at a Baltimore high school and a Philadelphia middle school. Starting in the early 2000s after the pilot project grew to four cities, Balfanz made an alarming observation.

“All the high schools looked the same,” he says. “Whether it was Cleveland or Detroit or Philly, you would find hundreds, even 1,000 kids in the ninth grade and wild celebrations when 150 kids got a diploma [four years later]. And that led us to this question of, ‘How many of these high schools are there?’ ”

The only data on high school graduation rates at the time were conflicting and unreliable. Balfanz decided he, along with fellow CSOS researcher Nettie Legters, would have to come up with the numbers on their own for every U.S. high school. They determined there were 2,000 dropout factories by comparing the size of an incoming freshman class at each high school to the number of students who remained by 12th grade. They found:

  • In these 2,000 worst high schools – 12 percent of all U.S. high schools – a typical freshman class shrinks by 40 percent or more by its senior year, with 900 to 1,000 of these schools graduating 50 percent or fewer of their incoming freshmen.
  • About half of the dropout factories are located in big cities of the North, West and Midwest, but the other half are dispersed throughout the South – split among rural, urban and suburban areas.  
  • Almost half of the nation’s African-American high school students and nearly 40 percent of its Hispanic students, but only 11 percent of white students, attend high schools that graduate fewer than 50 percent of their average freshman classes.

At the time the report was published, CSOS opened its first startup high school, Baltimore Talent Development High School, in the same rough West Baltimore neighborhood that was home to HBO’s acclaimed cable television series, The Wire, and Balfanz was placed as the school’s co-operator. Balfanz says the Talent Development model has three central components:

  • Accelerated learning courses to fill in what students did not learn in earlier grades.
  • A personalized environment with teams of four teachers each – math, science, English and social studies – sharing the same 75 to 90 students.
  • Professional development supports to ease the burden on teachers.

Soon, Balfanz and CSOS went national with the Talent Development model. Today, they work actively with about 75 middle and high schools, most of which are reform efforts at existing schools. Many of them are on the list of dropout factories.


When the fun started

When Thomas C. West, then a Hopkins sociology graduate student, took a job as Balfanz’s research assistant in 2004, shortly before publication of Locating the Dropout Crisis, he figured it would be a great opportunity to work in math-driven education reform.

But what West could not anticipate was that he would have a front-row seat at Balfanz’s progression from a researcher/education practitioner to prime witness before Senate committees.

“There was definitely a transformation from school to big (time); from the classroom to the nation; from the guy who’s in the data to the guy who has the big picture,” West says. “When you go see him now, it’s like watching An Inconvenient Truth. He’s like Al Gore.”

West’s analogy was prescient: Balfanz’s research and congressional testimony are featured in Waiting for Superman, the much-anticipated documentary on the education reform movement from the same director who won a 2007 Oscar for best documentary for An Inconvenient Truth.

Balfanz pinpoints his own switch to policymaker – what he likes to call several “aha” moments – to the mid-2000s. He realized the federal system did not provide sufficient funding to the neediest of schools or impose proper accountability measures.

“So those two ‘ahas’ said ‘We’ve got to go to Washington,’ ” Balfanz says. “It just went from there: We saw a need, we were connected, people started finding us, we started finding people and the policy side emerged.”

In 2007, the Robert Balfanz public profile reached a more mainstream audience when he released an updated version of the dropout factory report – this time naming the 2,000 schools he deemed dropout factories.

 “We almost felt like it was a public health issue,” Balfanz says, explaining that his follow-up research showed the dropout factories were increasingly in high-poverty, mostly minority communities. “So you have an obligation to tell people about that.”

“When he decided to go public with that list, that’s when the fun started,” says West, now at the University of Delaware, studying for a doctorate in sociology. West, who still runs Balfanz’s data sets and crunches numbers for him when called upon, remembers Balfanz was so flooded with media requests that he had West do some of the interviews. 

The reaction from the dropout factories themselves was mixed. Balfanz recalls “between 25 percent saying ‘how dare you!’ about half saying you got it right – for better or worse for us – and then a quarter saying ‘it’s actually worse than you think it is.’ ”

Armed with that research, and another study that tracked Philadelphia middle schoolers and ninth-graders for potential dropout warning signs, Balfanz was ready to tackle Capitol Hill. He has since given formal testimony to Senate and House committees, participated in eight to 10 less formal congressional briefings and worked with several lobbying groups, including the Alliance for Excellent Education, community development organization Civic Enterprises and youth advocacy group America’s Promise Alliance.

He is beginning to see the fruits of his labor with the announcement of the i3 grant for his Diplomas Now curriculum. “That’s very exciting and very challenging,” Balfanz says of the grant, which is for a collaborative effort with his brother Jim, president of City Year, and Communities in Schools.


‘More Bob Balfanzes in the world’

With the expansion in recent years of various initiatives, not to mention speaking engagements, Balfanz has yet to put aside any of his roles. The only title changes in recent years are ones that gave him more responsibility: He’s gone from associate research scientist to principal research scientist at CSOS and from co-operator at Baltimore Talent Development High School to sole operator.

Those that know him well have a theory on his time management skills: “At Hopkins they have this cloning program, and he’s been cloned four times,” jokes John Bridgeland, president and CEO of Civic Enterprises. “We certainly need more Bob Balfanzes in the world.”

Wise makes the identical joke.

West takes a more pragmatic approach.

“He’s a giver; it’s very apparent if you ever see him around his family,” West says. “I think he wants to be everywhere he can be, because he wants to help. A lot of times, I keep track of him by Googling him.”

Balfanz and his wife of 15 years, who teaches musicology at both Peabody and New York’s Julliard School, have a daughter, 13, and a son, almost 11.

Balfanz acknowledges and even laughs about his numerous responsibilities, then focuses on his “other” children – those at his Baltimore high school.

“To have this connection of practice to policy to research, I found [Baltimore Talent Development High School] very grounding, because it’s the real test. It’s not a theory; it’s an actual school with actual kids,” Balfanz says.

 “That’s actually the place where I go to get recharged,” he says. If “the policy work is getting bogged down or we’re having implementation issues, when we actually go and see a living, breathing school that’s making a difference, it recharges you, even as it asks more work of you.”


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