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Making Do With Less: Interpreting the Evidence from Recent Federal Evaluations of Dropout-Prevention Programs

Authors: Mark Dynarski
Date Published: January 01, 2001

Policymakers interested in reducing the number of dropouts no doubt would like to hear something they could do for which there is some evidence it will be effective. The pattern of evidence from the impact assessment points to programs that were effective.
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Beginning in the late 1980s, the U.S. Department of Education conducted three large evaluations of the effectiveness of programs to reduce dropping out. The programs and the evaluations were supported by funds from the Carl Perkins Vocational Education Act and two phases of the School Dropout Demonstration Assistance Program (SDDAP), one operating from 1989 to 1991, the other from 1991 to 1996. Together, the three evaluations studied more than 100 dropout prevention programs and rigorous evaluation designs were used for 30 of these programs.

Findings from the three evaluations show that most programs did not reduce dropping out by statistically significant amounts, but some programs did improve some outcomes. Three programs (funded in the second phase of the SDDAP) that prepared students who had already dropped out to get the General Education Development certificate improved GED completion rates. An alternative high school on a community college campus reduced dropout rates. And several alternative middle schools reduced dropout rates.

The three evaluations were broad-ranging studies and two of the three relied on random assignment techniques to measure program effects reliably. Considering the extent and rigor of these evaluations, do their findings comprise a menu of program approaches that a policymaker or education program developer could use to select an effective dropout-prevention program for their school or district?

In this paper, I argue that we do not yet have a menu of program options for helping students at risk of dropping out. The evaluation findings are useful as guides to further program development and testing, but they fall short of providing a scientific basis for implementing programs in new schools or districts based on the models. Recognizing the urgency of the issue, however, I suggest an alternative approach to identify approaches for helping at-risk students that program developers can use while efforts to develop a stronger scientific basis for programs continue.

The approach I suggest puts a premium on the ability of a program developer to readily see or infer the “logic model” inherent in an education idea or approach being considered. The logic model is the statement of the pathways by which a program will achieve its objectives. According to the approach I suggest, programs are more desirable when it is clear how they can be expected to affect teaching or learning, or keep students in school. Doubts or confusion about how a program will achieve its objectives should be viewed as a downside to the program. I note the elements of dropout prevention programs to which their effectiveness may be traced and suggest that implementing these elements—rather than “a program”—may be a useful strategy to reduce dropping out.

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