High school dropout factories?

While doing one of our typical searches of education news stories, BoardBuzz came across the frightening (just in time for Halloween, we suppose) headline on 1 in 10 Schools are ‘Dropout Factories’. Sure sounded like just another article blasting public education. But after reading further and eventually getting past the alarming language, BoardBuzz found a lot that was valuable. For one, the statistics are quite troubling: about 1,700 (12 percent) of our nation’s high schools do not graduate more than 60 percent of their 9th graders within four years. Since these schools enroll close to 3 million students we’re probably talking about hundred of thousands of students not graduating on time.

But unlike so many other articles that just take cheap shots at our nation’s public schools, this article actually took the time to look at the cause of the problem and ways to fix it. The article mentioned that many of these high schools are in high-poverty areas where students are likely to drop out to work full time or be lured away by gangs – factors that on face value don’t appear within the realm of the schools’ control.

But there are things schools can do to overcome these problems. The article highlighted the success of the inner-city Baltimore Talent Development High School. This school was founded by John Hopkins researcher Bob Balfanz, who actually coined the phrase “Dropout Factory.” The school, located in a high-crime high-poverty neighborhood in Baltimore, Md., now has 90 percent of its students on track to graduate, which is a whole lot better than the 60 percent seen in many similar high schools. Teachers and students point to the school’s focus on ensuring that teachers, students, and administrators know each other well so no student falls through the cracks or feels unimportant.

Twelfth-grader Jasmine Coleman noted “I know teachers that have knocked on people’s doors. They want us to succeed.”

School boards and other education policymakers have recognized the dropout problem and are working hard to fix it. One such state that has garnered a lot of attention recently for their policy to encourage students at-risk of dropping out to take college level courses is New York. This sounded counterintuitive to BoardBuzz but our friends over at the Center for Public Education say the policy is based on research that shows students of all achievement levels are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college if they take college courses in high school. These programs are especially effective for low-income students. A summary of one such report can be found on the Center’s Web site. There you will also find what research has found to be successful dropout prevention strategies that are actually getting more students to cross that stage at the end of high school – including more challenging subject matter.

These are important strategies to help decrease dropout rates but by no means are they silver bullets. School board members, educators and each community need to work together to make sure every student feels valued and significantly reduce dropouts in every district.

To learn more about how prevent dropouts and raise graduation rates read The Center for Public Education’s The Straight Story on High School Graduation Rates and Research Review: Keeping Kids in School.

Erin Walsh|October 31st, 2007|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Student Achievement|


  1. John Greely says:

    The story in Alaska focused on our small number of high schools — 40. And the fact that seven of them were named in the Johns Hopkins study for having a graduation rate of less than 60 percent. The reaction from our school districts has been to question the use of simple numbers to categorize schools as drop out factories. Here is one reply from a school superintendent in Dillingham:
    The Anchorage Daily News reported a recent Johns Hopkins study that labeled schools “dropout factories” when fewer than sixty percent of their freshmen advance to their senior year. Dillingham High School was named, based on that criterion. But is DHS a dropout factory? Do forty percent of our first year high school students really drop out? Hardly, and the confusion comes from misunderstanding dropout and graduation rates.

    A dropout rate is calculated from the number of students who withdraw from the district before the end of each school year. It does not account for a student who re-enrolls after withdrawing and does not indicate whether the student simply transferred to another district in Alaska or another state. The graduation rate is computed from the number of students who enter ninth grade and graduate four years later. It does not include students who may take more than four years to complete high school.

    Dillingham’s 2003-04 ninth grade cohort group consisted of 42 students. Twenty-six graduated from DHS four years later. Seven transferred to other schools and the remaining nine from the class are unaccounted for. In fact, it is conceivable the DHS ninth graders of 2003 had a 100% graduation rate, if those who transferred and those for whom we have no data actually graduated elsewhere.

    Using the data above, Johns Hopkins might have incorrectly concluded that the DHS class of 2007 had a graduation rate of only 62% (26 of 42) and a dropout rate of 38%. Forty-two students actually did graduate in May 2007, but we get no credit for those who joined the class after 2004.

    Dillingham has a wonderful dropout prevention program in its alternative high school, the Maximum Achievement Program (MAP). Johns Hopkins apparently did not include the “drop in” rate MAP experiences. Furthermore, MAP has some students above 19 years of age who are making progress toward earning their high school diplomas. Since they are more than four years beyond the year in which they entered ninth grade, they are considered dropouts.

    A single high school dropout is one too many, but to suggest that Dillingham High School is a dropout factory is an affront to the school, grossly misleading, and not supported by fact. Be assured, DHS is neither a dropout factory nor a diploma mill.

    Arnold E. Watland
    Dillingham City School District

  2. John Thompson says:

    Congratulations. You responded to an imperfect but valuable study in a manner that benefits kids. You didn’t react in a defensive manner. You offered constructive analysis, and your hyper-links were excellent.

    What would happen if your approach became the norm in discussions of education?

    And that reminds me, there has been a lot of profound criticisms of NCLB. The wisest of the bunch came from your organization.


  3. Tom HAnson says:

    I reviewed the process used for labeling these schools dropout factories, the so-called “promotion factor,” at:

    There is clearly an issue with students dropping out but the phrase dropout factory appears to have been coined to sell papers. In my piece I also take great exception to those who think NCLB will solve this issue.

    Tom Hanson

Leave a Reply