Must-read new report on high school dropouts
I have long considered high school drop-outs not only the least soluble of our education problems but the least clear. School districts have traditionally fudged the numbers, reporting their drop-out rates as only 5 or 6 percent, a grossly deceptive one-year rate.
The National Governors Association and other policymakers, ashamed of this charade, have put an end to it. Everyone is switching to a four-year drop-out rate, the percentage of ninth-graders (about 31 percent nationally) who do not receive diplomas four years later. The improved data has not only raised the level of the debate but also made possible a new report with some unnerving revelations about graduation rates.
My wife made the mistake of letting me go with her to her office last Sunday to catch up on work. While there I read the new Education Week report, “Graduation by the Numbers: Putting Data to Work for Student Success,” and kept squealing at one statistical surprise after another. I insisted on reading each one to her, delaying her efforts to get back outside on a nice weekend day.
The report’s prime author is Christopher B. Swanson, vice president for Research & Development at Editorial Projects in Education Inc., the nonprofit that owns Education Week. (Bias alert: I am on their board.) Swanson is a national expert on dropouts. This is some of his best work. He has mined the latest data in remarkable ways.
He discovered, for instance, that just 25 of the 11,000 U.S. school districts with high schools accounted for one out of every five students who failed to graduate in 2007, the most recent year with relevant data. Those 25 districts at the top of the dropout scale had a quarter million non-graduates, as many as were counted in the lowest ranked 8,400 districts.
Here they are, followed by their number of non-graduates in 2007:
1. New York City, 43,643
2. Los Angeles, 42,174
3. Clark County, Nev. (Las Vegas) 17,479
4. Chicago, 16,731
5. Miami-Dade County, 13,261
6. Philadelphia, 9,324
7. Houston, 9,266
8. Broward County, Fla. (Fort Lauderdale), 9,093
9. Detroit (class of 2009), 8,754
10. Dallas, 8,054
11. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., 6,386
12. Hillsborough County, Fla. (Tampa), 5,773
13. Hawaii (statewide district), 5,731
14. Orange County, Fla. (Orlando), 5,656
15. Palm Beach County, Fla., 5,507
16. Prince George’s County, Md., 5,426
17. Gwinnett County, Ga., 5,115
18. DeKalb County, Ga., 5,073
19. San Bernardino City, Calif., 5,051
20. Baltimore, 5,047
21. Duval County, Fla. (Jacksonville), 5,002
22. San Diego, 4,836
23. Milwaukee, 4,680
24. Albuquerque, N.M., 4,637
25. Pinellas County, Fla., 4,280
The problem is so concentrated that a concerted effort to raise graduation rates in just those districts could bring significant improvement nationally. New York being number one is no surprise. It is the biggest district, with 1.1 million students. The more students you have, the more dropouts you are likely to generate. But notice, Swanson wrote, that “despite its smaller size, the 678,000-student Los Angeles Unified generates a comparable number of dropouts, owing to a graduation rate 14 points lower than in New York City.”
I think Los Angeles’s higher dropout rate could be related to its higher portion of recent and often illegal immigrants, a factor that connects with another of Swanson’s revelations -- a 140-year history of four-year graduation rates in America.
The long graph stretches over two pages below Swanson’s article, “Progress Postponed.” It shows the percentage of high school graduates among those old enough to receive diplomas from 1870 (2 percent) through 1900 (6.4 percent), through 1940 (50.8 percent), through 1969 (the peak year, 77.1 percent), to 68.8 percent in 2007. I had never before seen this laid out with such clarity.
Why have graduation rates been declining since 1969? The timing suggests to me that the surge in immigration has something to do with it. Immigrants account for a significant number of poor people in the country. Poverty correlates with leaving high school before graduation. When I called Swanson about this he suggested an additional factor. Graduation rates were high in both high school and college in the late 1960s, perhaps a temporary phenomenon caused by even the most restless male students of my generation not wanting to expose themselves to the draft and the Vietnam War.
There’s more. I tend not to blame schools for large dropout rates. The higher percentage of students from impoverished families, the higher the school's dropout rate is going to be. The educators have little or no way to change the circumstances of their students’ family lives. But Swanson and his staff analyzed the demographic factors associated with dropouts and published a chart that makes me wonder if I should be so quick to excuse the schools.
Swanson identified a pool of urban districts that matched the profile of the nation’s largest urban school systems and then singled out those whose graduation rates were significantly higher than what would be predicted from their size, poverty level and other characteristics. Above, I identified the 25 districts that produce the most dropouts. Here is the flip side of that, districts that seem to have had success reducing the dropout rates despite my assumption that they couldn’t. The district names and locations are followed by the number of percentage points their graduation rate in 2007 exceeded what was predicted:
1. Newport-Mesa, Newport Beach, Calif. (29)
2. David Douglas, Portland, Ore. (20)
3. Texarkana, Texarkana, Tex. (19)
4. Memphis, Memphis, Tenn. (18)
5. Visalia, Visalia, Calif. (18)
6. Jonesboro, Jonesboro, Ark. (18)
7. Mesa, Mesa, Ariz. (16)
8. Hamilton County, Chattanooga, Tenn. (16)
9. Madera, Madera, Calif. (15)
10. Phenix, Phenix City, Ala. (14)
11. United, Laredo, Tex. (14)
12. Fort Smith, Fort Smith, Ark. (13)
13. Evansville-Vanderburgh, Evansville, Ind. (13)
14. Hemet, Hemet, Calif. (12)
15. Riverside, Riverside, Calif. (12)
16. Ferguson-Florissant, Florissant, Mo. (12)
17. Cumberland, Fayetteville, N.C. (12)
18. Long Beach, Long Beach, Calif. (11)
19. Little Rock, Little Rock, Ark. (11)
20. Muscogee County, Columbus, Ga. (10)
21. Warren Township, Indianapolis, Ind. (10)
The most eye-catching charts and revelations are in the back of the report, but “Graduation by the Numbers” has good articles in front, too. The Stockton, Calif., schools, for instance, reassigned several office staffers to check the whereabouts of students listed as dropouts. They interviewed neighbors. They pursued leads. They tracked down large numbers of students who had not left school, but had moved to another area. That, and improved programs to keep students in school, reduced the district’s dropout rate from 52.5 to 17.7 percent in just one year.
I am reading, and rereading, the whole report. It provides a useful context for just about everything I have ever read about dropouts. If this is the hardest problem to solve in education, we are going to need the best data we can find, and Swanson has provided a lot of it.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page, http://washingtonpost.com/education.
| June 10, 2010; 1:00 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: 140 year history of drop-outs, 21 districts that have reduced drop-outs, 25 districts that produce one of every five drop-outs, drop-outs, high school graduation rates
Save & Share: Previous: Look for fun, not facts, on your campus visits
Next: The principal who created a wellspring of innovation
Posted by: allenm1 | June 10, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: redhouse18 | June 10, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: pittypatt | June 10, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: TwoSons | June 10, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 10, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: TwoSons | June 10, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: TwoSons | June 10, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: TwoSons | June 10, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: TwoSons | June 10, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: TwoSons | June 10, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 10, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: TwoSons | June 10, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: incredulous | June 10, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: TwoSons | June 10, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: shadwell1 | June 10, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: celestun100 | June 10, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: kodonivan | June 10, 2010 10:11 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: PGCResident1 | June 10, 2010 10:36 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: PGCResident1 | June 10, 2010 10:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: EdDude | June 11, 2010 2:17 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: trace1 | June 11, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: kmlisle | June 11, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: nat15222 | June 11, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: letsbereal2 | June 12, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ilcn | June 13, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: johnt4853 | June 13, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: celestun100 | June 13, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: celestun100 | June 13, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: celestun100 | June 13, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: celestun100 | June 13, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ilcn | June 13, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jennymancino | June 14, 2010 7:56 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.