Wednesday, December 01, 2010

America's Promise Alliance takes a look at dropout rates

Interesting Texas-based exchange on the recent dropout report.

Also check out an earlier post on this blog titled: "Colin Powell, Educators Focus on High School Dropout Epidemic" that includes access to the full report.


America's Promise Alliance released a major report yesterday about dropout rates across the country. The Education Front exchanged emails Tuesday with Joanna Hornig Fox, one of the authors of the report. She serves as deputy director of Everyone Graduates Center at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Here is the exchange, which includes a specific look at Texas:

From 2002 - 2008, your report claims, "more than half the states - 29 in total --increased high school graduation rates." That's impressive. What happened?
In the last eight to 10 years, significant national and state-level initiatives occurred that in aggregate built a foundation for raising graduation rates in districts and schools that took advantage of the opportunities afforded by the initiatives -- rather than fighting them.

First, No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB) and its reporting requirements unarguably required schools to disaggregate student data. An 80 percent graduation rate can mask the fact that some groups are graduating at 90 percent, and others at 60 and 70. NCLB brought granularity to school improvement. Once one disaggregates data, one knows better where one has to target improvement efforts.

Second, the National Governors Association and almost all of the governors endorsed a uniform way to calculate graduation rates. This has two components -- governors (and legislatures) provided leadership in many states, and states began counting in similar ways.

Many folks don't realize that until recently, reported "graduation rates" were based on different sets of numbers, sometimes counted at different times of year, for different sets of students, sometimes including students who received a GED rather than a diploma and sometimes based on grades 7 to 12 student cohorts -- among many others. Some schools and districts depended on the students who left school to report themselves as dropouts, and if they did not do so they were counted as transfers. Thus, there were non-uniform ways of counting. The NGA compact changed this, and led to the U.S. Department of Education convening panels of experts who examined the best methods of calculating graduation rates and began to require this of the states. A uniform method consistent across states is now used, and it depends on the grade-level enrollment data reported, according to consistent standards, by each state, district and school to the Common Core of Data of the U. S. Department of Education. Even better methods will begin shortly.

Third, there was recognition that we had to go beyond the ideas that had begun in the 1980s -- A Nation at Risk, then the national science and mathematics voluntary standards in the 1990s, then Goals 2000 -- and really put them into action. States and districts began strengthening their graduation requirements, then their standards and assessments.

And fourth, states, districts and schools began trying innovative ways to reconfigure their schools to get better results, often with the help of community partners and other collaborators and funders. There are many other factors that play into the school improvement efforts -- hopefully this will be a second question.

You also found that Texas saw a decline in "dropout factories." Something like 77 Texas high schools moved off the dropout factory list. Do you have any theories?

The Texas declines in dropout factories were distributed across urban areas, suburban areas, towns and rural areas -- it was one of only four states to show this type of distribution -- and this suggests that statewide policy leadership was instrumental, both in creating expectations and frameworks for change, and providing competitive funding opportunties for those districts and schools which had solid visions and good, results-oriented and practical ideas about how to try them and document whether they worked or not, how they could be improved, etc.

It also seems to me, from afar in Baltimore, and something that I would very much like to explore further, that the Texas regional structure and empowerment of the 20 educational service agencies to provide guidance, technical assistance and professional development, with some of the ESC's having developed special expertise in certain areas, is a tremendous support structure.

My understanding is that participation in these offerings is also voluntary on the part of districts and, coupled with the competitive funding opportunities, this becomes a powerful incentivization for districts and schools.

And last, Texas has had tremendous investment and recognition by outside collaborators that supports courageous districts and schools in trying to take school improvement that benefits many more students to the next level.

You all are calling for a Civic Marshall Plan for our schools. What would that entail?

Here are some of the elements that we think are likely to be important:

Target actions with low graduation rate communities

-- Start with early reading success in 3rd grade -- enable students to move to comprehension, beyond phonics
-- Focus on middle schools
-- Turn around or replace dropout factories
-- Harness non-profits and volunteer associations to support schools
-- Link local researchers to policy and practice

Build capacity to improve graduation and college readiness
-- Build early warning data systems
-- Create multi-sector and cross-community based efforts
-- Develop new education systems (by this we mean alternative education environments) that are based on community needs and interests
-- Get good high school and graduation rate data, and keep on improving it
-- Develop parent engagement strategies
-- Listen to students, parents and educators

Strengthen the public education system-- Build data systems that talk across "silos" and that link multiple sectors
-- Set high expectations for teachers and administrators, for high effectiveness and high accountability
-- Connect high school graduation and postsecondary completion

To make this concrete, we are working on assembling a Leadership Council by March 1, 2011. It will help us set directions and actions to accomplish the 2020 goals.

The organizing partners for the Civic Marshall Plan are Everyone Graduates Center, Civic Enterprises and Americas Promise Alliance. The Civic Marshall Plan is anticipated to be the "crown jewel" in the America's Promise Alliance's "Grad Nation " campaign.

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