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What do we know about intervention and prevention?

Dropouts in America: How severe is the problem? 
What do we know about intervention and prevention?

On January 13, 2001, CRP held its first conference on high school dropouts and reform policies to tackle this problem. Co-sponsored with Achieve Inc., it gathered more than 17 experts in the subject and produced 14 commissioned papers. This page summarizes the working papers presented at the conference.

IMPORTANT: These research papers are not final versions; please do not quote or cite without the permission of the The Civil Rights Project.

The following papers were presented during the conference Dropouts in America held on January 13, 2001, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and co-sponsored with Achieve, Inc.


"Easing the Transition to High School: An Investigation of Reform Practices to Promote Ninth Grade Success"

by Nettie Legters and Kerri Kerr, Johns Hopkins University

This study investigates the types and effects of practices aimed at promoting ninth grade success. The current high school reform movement has drawn attention to reform practices that schools might use to ease ninth graders' transition into high school (Newmann and Wehlage, 1995), but little is known about the character, extent of use, and impact on student outcomes of these reforms. The authors administered a survey to all 175 Maryland high schools in spring 2000, with an 80% response rate, providing data on the kinds of transitional practices and programs the state's high schools are currently using with their ninth graders. The data will be used to create a descriptive typology of school practices and interventions aimed at ninth graders that includes frequency of use across schools, the number of years practices have been in place and the percentage of ninth graders affected by practices. State-level data will then enable the authors to assess the relationship between the various reform practices and student attendance, promotion, dropout rates, and achievement, controlling for school context variables such as size, percent minority and average student SES. Qualitative data in the form of site visits and interviews to be collected in fall 2000 will supplement these analyses with richer information about how practices for ninth graders are being implemented at selected sites.

"How Many Central City High Schools Have a Severe Dropout Problem, Where Are They Located, and Who Attends Them? Initial Estimates Using the Common Core of Data"
by Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters, Johns Hopkins University

While it is generally assumed that the high dropout rates in urban districts are at least in part due to low performing high schools, little is known about how many of these failing schools there are, where they are located, and who attends them. This paper uses the National Center for Education Statistics' Common Core of Data to develop a demographic portrait of low-performing public high schools in the 35 largest central cities in the U.S. Using the indicator of "holding power," or the proportion of students retained between the 9th and 12th grades, the authors estimate the number of central city high schools with high drop out rates, examined their distribution and demographics, and identify specific districts where the problem is most acute. The initial findings reveal that for recent cohorts analyzed (i.e. 1989-1993 and 1992-1996), about half of the sampled central city high schools have a holding power of 50% or less. This suggests the urban dropout problem is concentrated in between 200 to 300 schools. The data also shows that there is considerable variation across the 35 largest central cities in the number and percent of high schools with weak holding power.


"Revisiting the Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education: Lessons About Dropout Research and Dropout Prevention"
by Walter Haney, Boston College
This paper examines the effect that the full implementation of the TAAS system (i.e., passing a test for high school graduation) has had on the grade transition ratios in Texas. Because the Texas Education Agency's definition of what counted as a dropout has changed several times over the past decade, Haney examines the possible effects of the TAAS on grade enrollment patterns and high school completion. The analysis reveals that one of the effects the implementation of the TAAS system (phased in from 1990-91 to 1992-93) has been a dramatic decrease in the progress of Black and Hispanic students from grade 9 to high school graduation three years later; from roughly 60% in the 1970's to 50% since 1992-93 (Haney, 2000). Further, he finds that since 1992, Black and Hispanic students' progress from grade 9 through high school graduation is being stymied in grade 9 before they take the test. The paper gives special attention to students' overagedness in Texas high schools and the increase in retention in ninth grade.


"Do Higher State Test Scores in Texas Make for Better High School Outcomes?"
by Martin Carnoy, Susanna Loeb, and Tiffany L. Smith, School of Education, Stanford University

This paper uses information at both state and school level to look at the educational progression of students in Texas. Looking at trends over time, starting in the early 1980's, the authors look at trends over time to estimate the potential impact of the 1984 reform and the high stakes testing that was implemented in 1990-91. While the authors do not find evidence that testing increased dropout or retention rates, they do identify a striking propensity to retain students, especially low-income and minority students, in the 9th grade, which increased substantially following the 1984 reform.

Rising pass rates on the TAAS, the test administered to students and the primary measure of school success, suggest that Texas's goal of improving educational outcomes is being met. Nevertheless, Carnoy et al. show that high school graduation rates for 8th, 9th, and 10th graders rose at best slightly in the 1990's, and then only in the past few years. This is troubling because school graduation rates in Texas are relatively low in Texas, particularly among minority groups. The results suggest that the state accountability system based on TAAS scores may have had positive effects on high school outcomes in the 1990's if the "official" dropout rate is a "good" measure of the probability of high school completion.


"Making School Completion Integral to School Purpose & Design"
by Jacqueline Ancess and Suzanna Wichterle Ort, National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, & Teaching

This paper presents evidence from an eight-year longitudinal study of a reform initiative known as the Coalition Campus Schools Project (CCSP). CCSP was a collaboration of the New York City Board of Education, the United Federation of Teachers, and a consortium of foundations, whose primary purpose was to establish a model for the reform of large failing urban secondary schools. In many instances, the CCSP attempted to replace large schools with smaller, autonomous schools organized for teachers to know students well and provide them with an education focused on intellectual development. The paper addresses the research question: What organizational and pedagogical practices affect student outcomes, in particular graduation and dropout rates? Relying on a review of interviews, classroom observations, and official Board reports, the authors argue that students' school success is positively related to small school and class size, as well as factors like a performance-based assessment system and the organization of school structure, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development.


"Connecting Entrance and Departure: The Transition to Ninth Grade and High School Dropout "
by Ruth Curran Neild, Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., University of Pennsylvania; and Scott Stoner-Eby, University of North Carolina

Much of the literature on school dropout implies a randomness to the timing of when leaving school becomes more appealing than staying. In this paper, we examine how one crisis point in urban students’ educational careers – the transition to high school – affects the likelihood of dropping out. We find that despite an extensive set of pre-high school controls for family, achievement, aspirations, school engagement, and peer relationships, ninth grade outcomes add substantially to our ability to predict dropout. The importance of the ninth grade year suggests that reducing the enormous dropout rates in large cities will require attention to the transition to high school.


"Why Students Drop Out of School and What Can Be Done"
by Russell Rumberger, University of California, Santa Barbara

This paper examines why students drop out of school and what can be done about it. After briefly summarizing who drops out of school, the paper reviews the theoretical and empirical research that attempts to explain why students drop out of school based on two different conceptual frameworks that are both useful and necessary to understand this complex phenomenon. One framework is based on an individual perspective that focuses on individual factors associated with dropping out; the other is based on an institutional perspective that focuses on the contextual factors found in students’ families, schools, communities and peers. The paper also discusses the extent to which these frameworks can be used explain differences in dropout rates among social groups, particularly racial and ethnic minorities. The next section of the paper examines various strategies to address the dropout, reviewing examples of both programmatic and systemic solutions, and the extent to which policy can promote them. The final section of the paper discusses whether the United States has the capacity and the will to reduce dropout rates and eliminate disparities in dropout rates among racial and ethnic groups.


"Are Dropout Decisions Related to Safety Concerns, Social Isolation, and Teacher Disparagement?"
by James E. Rosenbaum and Stefanie DeLuca, Northwestern University

This paper examines the ways in which students' feeling unsafe or isolated in their school environment may affect their school behaviors and their decisions to remain in school. Further, it examines how teachers respond to students experiencing these threats. The authors use the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) data, a national survey which follows students from eighth grade to six years later, so it allows a good national sample for studying the incidence of dropouts and a long period to examine its antecedents.

The authors present evidence that a lack of safety is strongly related to dropping out and withdrawal behaviors. Students who feel unsafe and threatened are more likely to cut classes, and drop out of school, even after controls for SES, test scores, track placement and grades. They also find that the disparagement of teachers is strongly related to safety concerns, threats, and dropouts, and that it mediates teachers' influence on further dropouts. Rosenbaum's and DeLuca's analyses suggest that students are more likely to feel unsafe and to get threats of physical harm if they do not fit in, lack friends, and are put down by students. These safety concerns, and the informal peer relations, affect student school withdrawal behaviors, and dropouts. In some cases, they conclude, perceived teacher disparagement may have stronger relationships with dropping out than do peer influences, which they propose to investigate further.


"High School Dropout, Race-Ethnicity, and Social Background from the 1970s to the 1990s"
by Robert Hauser, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison

This paper presents an up-to-date demographic profile on dropout trends between 1972 and 1998, examining variables by race-ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geographic location (region and metropolitan), age, sex, and grade in school. The author expands on previous demographic work on high school dropouts by adding parent's characteristics of children's school enrollment and completion.

The author examines grade-specific dropout data from the Current Population Survey and relates it to household characteristics. Hauser's preliminary findings suggest large socioeconomic and geographic effects on dropout, which more than account for the observed race-ethnic differentials in the period from 1973 to 1989. Based on these findings, Hauser analyzes what may happen in the future under high-stakes testing regimes.


"Essential Components of High School Dropout Prevention Reforms"
by James McPartland and Will Jordan, Center for the Social Organization of Schooling, Johns Hopkins University

While current research indicates that a variety of different interventions may be used to reduce dropout rates, relatively little is known about models for changing entire high schools with adequate support services. Based on his team's work in Baltimore and Philadelphia, and selected other urban districts, McPartland describes both the base of knowledge and the problems in practice of changing an entire high school geared toward dropout prevention. He considers the range of interventions he and his team have implemented through the Talent Development Model. These fall into three broad categories: organizational factors, instructional factors (e.g. 9th grade curricula, common core curricula), and professional development. McPartland evaluates how well the various interventions have worked and how an entire organization would need to change to support these interventions. He also outlines what the barriers have been to developing and disseminating a model for high school change, and what kinds of policy support at local, state, and federal levels would help.


"Dropping Out of High School and Access to Social Capital: The Role of School Organization and Structure"
by Valerie Lee and David Burkam, University of Michigan

This paper uses the High School Effectiveness Supplement to the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) to investigate dropping out between 10 and 12th grade. What is the relationship between dropping out as an outcome and variables such as school structure, school organization, and students' social and economic background ("social capital")? The sample includes a nationally representative sample of U.S. high schools in urban and suburban areas, both public and private (Catholic and elite private). In addition to student background variables, the authors analyze the relationship between dropout rates and students' school performance (grades) and the courses they take.


"Making Do With Less: Interpreting the Evidence from Recent Federal Evaluations of Dropout-Prevention
by Mark Dynarski, Mathematica Policy Research Associates

This work presents major findings from a federally funded evaluation of the second phase of the U.S. Department of Education's School Dropout Demonstration Assistance Program (SDDAP). The evaluation considered how dropout-prevention programs operated, how programs used their funds, what kinds of students attended the programs, and whether programs improved student outcomes. More than 20 programs and 10,000 students were part of the evaluation.

The key finding from the evaluation is that most programs made almost no difference in preventing dropping out in general. Programs may have had great success in turning around the lives of some students, but in most programs, program experiences did not have much of an effect on students. This confirms earlier work indicating that it is extremely difficult to identify risk factors (i.e., students who have been thought to have some "risk factors" often persist, while students who showed none often dropped out.) Drawing on examples from the various sites, the author argues that ongoing, school-based personalized attention from adults that may conceivably make more of a difference than broad intervention programs.


"Career Academy Impacts for Students at High Risk of Dropping Out"
James Kemple, Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation

This paper summarizes findings from MDRC's ongoing Career Academies evaluation, and addresses the questions: To what extent does the Career Academy approach change educational, employment, and youth development outcomes for high school students at greater or lesser risk of school failure?How do the manner and context in which Career Academy programs are implemented influence their effects on student outcomes?

The Career Academy approach is one of the oldest and most widely established high school restructuring and school-to-work transition reforms in the United States. Career Academies have existed for more than 30 years and have been implemented in more than 1,500 high schools across the country. The durability and broad appeal of the Academy approach can be attributed, in part, to the fact that its core features offer direct responses to a number of problems that have been identified in large comprehensive high schools. Career Academies attempt to create more supportive and personalized learning environments through a school-within-a-school structure. There has been a great deal of research on the Academy approach. Nevertheless, previous studies have been unable to determine reliably whether differences between Academy students' high school experiences and outcomes and those of other students result from the Academy itself or from the program's student targeting or its selection practices.

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