Fixing dropout factories

November 05, 2007

About 1,700 high schools across the country - 12 percent of the total - are unable to hold onto more than 60 percent of their students from freshman to senior year, according to an analysis by Johns Hopkins University researchers.

Although these "dropout factories" are cause for concern, many, if not most, could be turned around using some proven reforms as well as focused federal and local resources. As Congress reconsiders the No Child Left Behind law, close attention should be paid to the issue.

Many of the low-performing high schools - including about a dozen in Maryland - were found in large cities or in high-poverty rural areas. They are responsible for about half of all dropouts and two-thirds of minority dropouts, and they contribute to a national on-time graduation rate of only about 70 percent.

The dropout cycle typically reaches the danger point in ninth grade. It starts with poor attendance, progresses to failed courses, escalates to not being promoted and winds up with a student turning his back on school.

Because many potential dropouts started struggling with academic failure in elementary and middle school, high schools must provide them with better instruction and offer more academic and other supports. That also means ensuring that low-performing schools hire more experienced teachers and administrators who can spearhead a turnaround.

Some proposals before Congress would provide $1 billion to help troubled schools implement these and other reforms, with the expectation that states and local districts would fill in the gaps. Targeted federal resources and greater school accountability for increasing graduation rates could go a long way toward making "dropout factories" obsolete.

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