A drop in ‘dropout factories’

The number of  “dropout factories” — schools with graduation rates under 60 percent — declined by 6.4 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to a report released today for the kick-of of the Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington.

Since 2002, there’s been a 20 percent drop in the number of students attending dropout factories, concludes the report by the Johns Hopkins University Everyone Graduates Center, America’s Promise Alliance, and Civic Enterprises, which are hosting the summit with the Alliance for Excellent Education.

California, South Carolina, Illinois and North Carolina showed the most improvement, while the number of  high-dropout schools increased in Georgia, New York and Ohio. State data is here.

At the summit today, reports College Bound, Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center, suggested districts use “new comparison data on graduation rates to shape targeted efforts, follow students over time with longitudinal data to see how their high school success is linked to their postsecondary success, and look at case studies of schools that have turned around their graduation rates using enhanced student supports and early-warning systems.”

The goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate is achievable, said John Bridgeland, president of Civic Enterprises.

“We will focus in like a laser on dropout-factory high schools and look at the feeder middle schools and elementary schools,” said Bridgeland.

. . . Bridgeland said many schools have early-warning systems in place in 9th grade, but that’s too late. They should be as early as the 4th or 5th grade. Mentors can also help off-track students, and states should raise the compulsory age that students are allowed to drop out, suggested Bridgeland.

Also at the summit, Vice President Joe Biden pitched President Obama’s college-completion goals, suggesting governors link funding to performance, align high school standards with college entrance and placement standards, simplify transfers, use data to drive decisions and target adults with “some college” but no degree.

Obama’s goal — a 60 percent college graduation rate by 2020 — ignores many students, Harvard Education Professor Robert Schwartz told the Washington Post.

Schwartz heads the Pathways to Prosperity Project, which released a study in February concluding that the U.S. education system should offer greater emphasis on occupational instruction.

“What’s the strategy for the other 40 percent of people?” he said. “We can’t keep saying, ‘College for all, college for all’ and yet set targets that even if you could meet them are going to leave out very large proportions of young people.”

In Massachusetts, the highest performing state, only 54 percent of adults have earned an associate or bachelor’s degree. In Arkansas, Nevada and New Mexico, the college graduation rate is 28 percent.

A diploma isn't enough

Without postsecondary training, high school graduates in Philadelphia struggle to earn a living, reports Johns Hopkins’ Everyone Graduates Center in Untapped Potential. Graduates worked more and earned more than dropouts, but many diploma-only graduates remained below the poverty line.  Only 35 percent of dropouts reported any income; those who worked averaged 25 weeks of employment and $9,000 in earnings. Those with only a high school diploma averaged $12,000 in earnings.  As time goes on, the earnings gap widens.

High school graduates experience greater earnings growth than dropouts, but the upward slope is much steeper for those with at least some postsecondary education.

Students who lack the motivation or academic skills to earn a college degree should be encouraged to aim for a vocational certificate at a community college. The effort will pay off.