Thursday, May 20, 2010

The dropout crisis

The United States faces a huge dropout crisis. In some cities the high school graduation rate is less than 50% -- sometimes as low as 25%. And this means devastating poverty for the dropouts, as well as continuing social blight for their communities. We might say, though, that the graduation rate is only the symptom of the problem; the causes include high poverty neighborhoods and failed elementary and middle schools, and the effects extend far into the future.

So in a way, it is too simple to call it a dropout crisis; rather, it is a schooling crisis (extending back into the early grades) and a poverty crisis (extending forward for one or more generations for the young people who are affected and their eventual children). And it is a particularly serious national problem, at the beginning of a century where the most important resource will be educated people and talented creators. How can we be optimistic about the prospects for innovation and discovery in the American economy when we are wasting so much human talent?

The crisis itself is widely recognized (link). What we haven't figured out yet is a success strategy for resolving the current system of failure. Is it even possible to envision a system of public education in high-poverty cities that actually succeeds in achieving the 90-90-90 goal (90% graduation rate, 90% achievement at grade level, 90% continuation to post-secondary education)? Or are we forced to conclude that the problem is too great, and that 50% of inner-city children are doomed to lives of continuing poverty and social blight? If so, the future is dim for our county as a whole: rising crime, social problems, civil conflict, and increasingly gated communities are our future. And, inevitably, our economic productivity as a country will falter. So the whole country loses if we don't solve this problem.

The current environment for solving the schooling problems is unpromising. Urban school systems across the country face staggering fiscal crises -- a $300 million deficit in Detroit, $480 million in Los Angeles, and similar amounts in other cities. So school systems are forced into a cycle of cost-cutting, removing some of the critical resources that might have addressed the failure for their students. And the school systems themselves -- administrators, teachers, and unions -- are all too often resistant to change. The current Federal educational reform program, Race to the Top (link), is designed to stimulate new thinking and more successful reforms; but the jury is out.

The situation requires a whole-hearted commitment to solving this problem. Solutions will require the best available research on learning and schooling; they will require substantial resources; and they will require significant collaboration among a number of stakeholders. And the solutions can't be simply one-off demonstration projects; we need a national strategy that will work at scale. There are a million new drop-outs a year. We need to reduce that number by 80% in the next decade if we are to be successful.

These are pretty daunting challenges. So consider this proposed solution that seems to have the ability to satisfy each of these constraints. This is the Diplomas Now program that is becoming increasingly visible in education reform and the press (link). The program is a research-based strategy for helping children make academic progress at every step of the way. It recognizes the need for much more intensive adult contact for at-risk children. It acknowledges the need for providing a host of community services in high-poverty schools. And it places high academic standards at the center of the strategy.

The program is based on important research undertaken by Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University (link). Balfanz finds that it is possible to identify high school drop-outs very early in their school experience. He identifies the ABC cluster of criteria as diagnostic of future high school failure: absenteeism, behavior, and course performance. Sixth-graders who show any one of these characteristics have only a 25% likelihood of completing high school. So, he reasons, let's use these early warning signs and intervene with children when there is still an opportunity to get them back on track. This requires careful tracking of each child, and it requires that schools have the resources to address the problems these children are having in the early grades. But Balfanz argues that the payoff will be exactly what we need: these children will be back on track and will have a high likelihood of graduating from high school.

So what does the strategy need? First, it needs a good and well-implemented tracking system. Second, it needs teachers and principals who have the professional development needed to allow them to assist the progress of their students. But it needs two other things as well: it needs a corps of dedicated young people who will function as fulltime near-peer tutors and mentors for at risk children. And it needs a set of wrap-around social and community services that are available to children and their families in the schools.

This is where community service and stakeholder collaboration come in. CityYear is a vibrant national youth service organization within Americorps (link). CityYear has always placed involvement in high-poverty schools at the core of its service agenda for the young people who give a year of their lives to change the world. Now CityYear has entered into agreements with the Diplomas Now program to support focused interventions in a growing number of schools in a number of cities. (Here is a CityYear report.) And Communities in Schools is a national organization that is able to provide the other piece (link). Communities in Schools provides several social work professionals and supervision for each DN school. Finally, the Talent Development program at Johns Hopkins provides training for DN teachers and administrators.

The Diplomas Now model has now been applied in a number of schools around the country, and the results are highly encouraging (link). Results for a sixth grade class in Feltonville School in Philadelphia are representative: from 2008 to 2009 absenteeism dropped by 80%, negative behavior dropped by 45%, and the number of students with failures in math or english dropped by about 80%. Participants and observers attribute the successes measured here to the synergies captured by the combined approach. But a key factor is the presence of caring young adults in the lives of these children. (video)

These are amazing and encouraging results. But we have to ask the question, what would it take to scale this solution for all of Los Angeles, Detroit, or Chicago? The answer is that it will require a major investment. But it will also return many times that amount in increased productivity and lower incarceration and social service costs.

Here are some estimates from CityYear planning for the challenge of scaling up the Diplomas Now solution. The goal the organization has adopted is an ambitious one: to have CityYear teams in all schools that generate 50% of dropouts in the city. In Detroit CityYear teams currently serve 8 schools and 4,600 students with 65 corps members. In order to reach the goal, CityYear Detroit will need to expand to 39 schools, serving 26,290 students, including 9,400 at-risk students, with 403 corps members. This expansion will be costly; federal, school, and private funding would increase from $3.8 million to $12.8 million. But the five-year return on investment is massive. A Northeastern University study estimates the benefit of converting one dropout into a graduate at $292,000, aggregating to a net social benefit of $686,000,000. The returns are enormous. Nationally the total annual cost of the CityYear program would be just under $200 million by 2016, with other program costs perhaps doubling this amount. But the value of success is a staggering number: net social benefits from reducing the drop-out rate estimated in the range of $10 billion.

So it seems that we now know that the skepticism that is often expressed about inner-city school failure is misplaced. There are intensive strategies for success that should work in any school. There is a cost to these programs. But there are many thousands of young people who are eager to pick up the responsibility. Their civic engagement and pragmatic idealism are inspiring. We need strong support from our government, foundations, and private sources in order to make school failure a thing of the past.

(Here are a couple of earlier posts on this topic; post, post, post.)

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