The incredible shrinking voc tech dropout rate

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On January 6th the Boston Globe published a thoughtful opinion piece on the cost of dropouts by Alan Leventhal, who in his day job serves as chairman and chief executive officer of Beacon Capital Partners. It opened with a good overview of the challenge in the country:

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY for education has been a social and moral imperative of our society. In the looming budget battles, it is now an economic imperative. The secondary education system annually produces 1 million dropouts nationally — 10,000 in Massachusetts alone — at a staggering cost to society.

The cost of a dropout over a lifetime has been estimated at up to $500,000 in lost wages, increased entitlements, and criminal justice spending. If the dropout rate can be reduced by one-half to 500,000 annually, savings will approach $250 billion over the lifetime of each graduating class. Over a 10-year period this would represent lifetime savings of almost $2.5 trillion. In the context of our budget challenges, this is real money.

There are many ways to come at this issue, but perhaps the most hopeful way is to look at the state’s voc-techs, which educate a higher percentage of at-risk students. Statewide, 17 percent of students are in special education, while the number is 24 percent at the voc-techs.

Previous blogs and research I have shared here have underscored how much academic performance has improved in the regional vocational-technical schools, which function autonomously outside the purview of a district superintendent. A quick primer on the issue can be gotten in Vocational-Technical Education in Massachusetts (October 2008); a few blogs (here, here, here, and here), and a Fall River Herald News op-ed in support of expanding vocational education.

Why is this the most hopeful way to look at the issue of dropouts? Because, as a report released yesterday notes, voc-tech schools — especially a subset of them — are hitting it out of the park increasing the graduation rate and lowering dropout rates.

The special education graduation rate for vocational technical schools, which stands at 82 percent, is nearly 20 percentage points higher than that of traditional district high schools.

Looking at it from Leventhal’s frame – that of the dropout rate — here are the numbers: “The statewide dropout rate at regular/comprehensive high schools averaged 2.8 percent in 2011, but … averaged a mere 0.9 percent among regional CVTE schools.”

Translated into a way that normal people think about this (a four-year high school cycle), that amounts to just over 11 percent of Massachusetts kids dropping out, and in the regional vocational technical schools less than 4 percent.

That’s a lot less than the district schools overall, but also a lot less than the city and town-run vocational technical schools, which have a cumulative four-year dropout rate of 17+ percent.

As the report notes, “the dropout rate is often higher among schools located in urban areas where the problems of gang violence, poverty and family dynamics can derail a student’s attempt to graduate from high school.” But there is, based on the decline in dropouts in regional voc-tech schools and also the standout performance of Worcester Tech, reason to believe we can do a lot better with the voc-techs currently part of the overall district system.

Consider this section of the report on Worcester Tech:

In the 2010-2011 school year, Worcester Tech’s dropout rate was just 0.5 percent, well under the statewide average of 2.7 percent and the 0.9 percent dropout rate for all vocational technical schools in the commonwealth. Among its sister urban district-controlled vocational technical schools, whose average dropout rate was 4.4 percent in 2010-2011, Worcester Tech had the lowest rate.

Perhaps more impressive is how Worcester Tech compares with schools in its own backyard. The district-wide dropout rate among the seven high schools in Worcester was 3.7 percent and Worcester Tech, with its 1,400 students, has the largest enrollment in the city.

… Worcester Tech’s low dropout rate and 95.8 percent graduation rate are a marked turnaround from where the school was a decade ago. Paired with the new facility was a new educational attitude that gave Worcester Tech the autonomy it needed to operate on its own, as a separate CVTE entity, and not “just another Worcester High School.”

“We needed to address the rigor of the academics connected to the technical program,” says Harrity. “We certainly had strength in the technical program and we had state of the art technology and equipment to support that, but we needed the integrated approach that really made student education relevant.”

Worcester Tech began incorporating more Advanced Placement courses into its four small learning communities: Alden Design and Engineering; Coghlin Construction Technology; Information Technology and Business Services; and Allied Health and Human Services Academy. It was approved to be a Massachusetts Math and Science Initiative (MMSI) 24 school, a program to increase participation in AP courses among underserved populations, with a pledge to increase AP offerings in science, technology, engineering and math. Advanced Placement enrollment was up 93 percent in the 2010- 2011 school year compared with the prior year.”

In his State of the City last year, Mayor Tom Menino vowed to make Madison Park Vocational Technical School a model for the city and the rest of the state. That certainly has not happened yet – and a year into the process the Mayor will want to rethink the strategy of keeping the school embedded in the overall district system – together with so many high schools that have very different missions.

There is huge upside for the mayor, if he draws the basic lesson from the new report:

when vocational-technical schools and programs are autonomous, they are significantly more successful, especially at retaining students, than CVTE schools and programs that are run as a component of a larger district

As David Ferreira, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators notes:

“The needs and responsibilities of vocational-technical students are unique. It only makes sense for schools to have the freedom to set policies and procedures customized to those students.”

There are other recommendations that are worth looking at including the mix of “academic choice, applied learning, intense mentor relationships, and high expectations” used in high-performing vocational-technical schools. Especially important for Madison Park is establishing “a schedule of alternating weeks of academic and trade education, which makes it easier for students to envision themselves in a career.”

The issue of dropouts cannot be solved by vocational-technical schools alone. But there are many lessons from the highest performing voc-techs that apply more broadly – especially in places like Madison Park Vocational. Freeing our urban vocational technical schools to perform at a higher level could serve as an important step forward in addressing the needs of at-risk kids.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.