Smaller high schools, smaller class sizes, and programs targeting the difficult transition to ninth grade can help solve America’s high school dropout problem, according to experts who gathered at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) Saturday.
The group, attending an all-day conference on the dropout problem, was pessimistic, however, that the nation would take the opportunity – and spend the needed dollars – to address it.
“I think we have the technical capability, but I don’t think we have the political will to solve the problem,” said Russell Rumberger of the University of California, Santa Barbara, one of 14 researchers who presented papers during the conference.
Though experts have an idea how to attack the problem, recent research has raised new doubts about how many dropouts the country actually has. The national dropout rate has long been thought to be about 15 percent, but researcher Phil Kaufman of MPR Associates showed that the data are gathered using different methods, different definitions, and surveying different populations. In addition, some surveys have very large margins of error.
One major discrepancy is that some surveys count students who obtain their General Equivalency Diploma as having graduated, while others count those individuals as high school dropouts.
Kaufman said the government spends about $45 million collecting data on student achievement but just $1 million gathering information on dropouts. He said the best way to really find out what’s going on is to begin gathering information on individual students, perhaps by tracking them from school to school using their social security numbers.
“There’s lots of things we could do, but all of them have a price tag. We, as a nation, have to commit to doing it,” Kaufman said.
The conference, held at the Gutman Library, was organized by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard and Achieve Inc. The event drew about 100 attendees, most of whom stayed until the 5 p.m. adjournment. Michael Ross, of the National Center for Education Statistics, said he enjoys conferences like this one because he picks up a lot of interesting information and meets researchers with whom he often winds up working.
Civil Rights Project Co-Director Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at the GSE and at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, opened the conference saying it would likely be “one of the most important days of discussion on the topic in perhaps a decade.”
“This is an issue of very, very great urgency for many millions of young people in America,” Orfield said.
While the exact magnitude of the problem may be elusive, the fact that it’s particularly severe in large urban schools has been understood for some time. One study looked at high schools in the nation’s 35 largest cities and identified 200 to 300 schools – about half of the regular and vocational high schools in those cities – where more than 50 percent of the students drop out.
Baltimore City High School’s Class of 2000 provided one stark example. There were 669 in the class when they entered as freshmen, 363 sophomores the next year, 265 juniors, and 197 seniors. Just 105 members of the class graduated.
Though dropping out is caused by a variety of complex factors, researchers tied a large number of dropouts to students who are held back after failing the ninth grade.
A study of Philadelphia schools found that 57 percent of those who repeated ninth grade wound up dropping out, compared with just 11 percent of those who passed ninth grade.
That trend has drawn attention to the transition that students go through when they enter high school. James McPartland, of Johns Hopkins University, described to the conference a model ninth-grade academy created within the walls of a larger high school. The academy, costing roughly $200,000 for a large, urban high school, is a place where students are taught by a core group of teachers within a smaller environment. This fosters a sense of physical safety, as well as a sense of belonging because all of the teachers know the students’ names.
That more intimate setting is augmented by a curriculum that features intensive remedial work in English and math during double-length classes, as well as a freshman seminar that talks about things such as attendance, study habits, social skills, and how to avoid a fight.
“It’s not easy, it’s not cheap, it’s not quick, but it is possible to make dramatic, powerful changes in these worst schools,” McPartland said.