Proven Approaches to Dropout Prevention

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Tomorrow the state’s Joint Committee on Education will meet to discuss a raft of proposals to address Massachusetts’ inability to bring down its dropout rate. It’s about time. The problem is that few of the proposals actually do much more than beef up a cadre of coaches and support staff for at-risk kids. Perhaps that can help, but the data in reports like The Silent Epidemic are pretty clear in noting that kids drop out for two reasons:

– Nearly half (47 percent) said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting. These young people reported being bored and disengaged from high school. Almost as many (42 percent) spent time with people who were not interested in school. These were among the top reasons selected by those with high GPAs and by those who said they were motivated to work hard.
– Nearly 7 in 10 respondents (69 percent) said they were not motivated or inspired to work hard, 80 percent did one hour or less of homework each day in high school, two-thirds would have worked harder if more was demanded of them (higher academic standards and more studying and homework), and 70 percent were confident they could have graduated if they had tried. Even a majority of those with low GPAs thought they could have graduated.

So step back and ask yourself, why is it that Massachusetts, which has shown such progress in student achievement, cannot significantly reduce its dropout rate?

The Commonwealth has continued to experience high dropout rates, especially in large urban and poorer public school districts. The statewide average annual dropout rate is 2.9 percent–that’s annual, so it rolls up to about a 12 percent dropout rate over the four years of high school. Some of our urban and low-income districts have dropout rates above 30 percent over four years.

So, what should the members of the Joint Committee on Education do? They should start with what has been proven to work.

  • Urban vocational technical schools should be allowed to separate from the superintendencies and to function much like the 26 autonomous regional vocational-technical schools in Massachusetts. The dropout rate in regional vocational-technical schools is less than half the statewide average, at 0.9 percent (less than 4 percent cumulatively). The unique attributes that these schools offer, including close adult supervision, individualized instruction to recognized benchmarks, and student choice and commitment to their programs, combine for an effective model that should be expanded.
  • Policymakers should remove the unhelpful regulations promulgated by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in the summer of 2010 – against the will of many legislators – that placed geographical and other restrictions on digital learning options. Massachusetts should emulate the successful Florida Virtual School program, an alternative educational option that has helped thousands of students, including those at risk of dropping out, learn at their own pace.

So, while many of the bills being debated call for new funding, new structures, and new actions that will take educators’ attention away from the core academic work of schooling, we may not need to go and build a new solution.

I’d go one step further. Some of the bills go in the wrong direction. As the national research shows, in addition to economic need, students leave school early because they find it intellectually meaningless and disconnected to life in our democracy. If student “boredom” looms so large in the dropout puzzle, why not give them something to inspire, something meaningful to learn?

I believe that urban districts need to refocus on academics so that students understand that they are in school for an academic purpose. Many of the urban districts with the highest dropout rates have never developed local curricula aligned with Massachusetts’ once nation-leading standards. This speaks to the academic core of schools and the ongoing need for teachers and administrators to focus on English, mathematics, science and history as the foundation of students’ education. In particular, it highlights the urgent need for students of all backgrounds to access the liberal arts and the broad knowledge necessary to succeed in high school, college, and life.

The lack of curricular alignment at the local level means something worse than a less than coordinated set of learning goals. It means that kids get tested on materials in the MCAS that they may never have seen. And that is a very easy and sad way to disconnect kids from a sense of meaning to their day-to-day classroom learning.

More can be gleaned on this topic from national curricular expert E.D. Hirsch and former Massachusetts Senate President Thomas Birmingham. Hirsch offered policy recommendations during a recent guest lecture to an education policy class taught by President Birmingham. Click here for a link to the transcript of that class, which includes introductory remarks by Birmingham, chief architect of the Commonwealth’s landmark 1993 education reform law, which increased education funding for cities and towns in exchange for high-quality state curriculum frameworks and rigorous student and teacher assessments.

The reason Massachusetts is having such problems lowering its dropout rates may have something to do with policymakers not knowing how to learn — about what works.

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