July 6, 2006

Increasing graduation rates, Part I

I've written enough recently about measuring graduation—as others have noted, it's time to talk about improving it. My perspective is that one must understand the difference between in-school and out-of-school pressures on students. Students are both pushed out of school in different ways and also pulled into other things. With that in mind, the first section (today's) focuses on steps schools can take to improve the odds of teens' graduating (and doing so with some academic skills).


  1. Graduation requirements: from the research, it looks like course requirements are at least as big a barrier as graduation exams, and the best way to handle that is professional development, professional development, professional development for middle-school and 9th-grade teachers. I have serious concerns about states with graduation exams, and the evidence of what such a test actually does is unclear, but trying to get rid of it is like swimming upstream in the Columbia River: a challenge at best. I suspect it's better to spend one's energies elsewhere.
  2. Pregnancies and kids when in school: obviously, preventing teen pregnancies is best (though teen pregnancy rates have gone down fairly regularly over the past 40 years, paralleling declining fertility in general). Schools can help with on-site day care, though it's best to pitch that as a way to attract and retain teachers and staff, not just as dropout prevention. (The word "dropout prevention" puts a death sentence on almost any school practice. If you have grant money for it, it survives, and then it dies.)
  3. Behavior issues in school: Kids lose enormous time when they're pulled out of classes or are suspended for their behavior. Some districts have shifted the response from out-of-school suspension to in-school suspension, which is one good step. Bottom line: when behavior is dangerous, and students must be removed from the regular classroom, education cannot stop. Schools should and can also take preventive steps, which will vary by grade level. Elementary schools can have fairly simple school-wide behavior plans that emphasize a lot of explicit education about specific social/behavior issues, a lot of praising good behavior, and a little bit of individualized plans for students who have the most troubles keeping their behavior appropriate. For elementary schools, especially, all adults in the school should have the power to reward students whose behavior is especially thoughtful. For older students, being praised by the principal on announcements just isn't enough, and pencils (or similar concrete rewards) will be seen as a cheap gimmick. But older students can help design social-behavior education, especially in schools with multilingual populations.
  4. States should identify and end all gaming-the-system incentives for schools to kick students out of school—the odd ways that school funding or accountability encourages triage and pushing students out. Students whose actions indicate that they are a danger to themselves or others are one thing. (See the education should not stop point above.) But most suspensions are a little different.
Of course, the personal connections that some adults make with students can help, but you can't really bottle that. Policy ideas that I don't think help with graduation (regardless of other potential merits):
  • Vocational education. Here, I am not going to address other arguments about vocational education (or career education, tech-prep, or other synonyms one may have heard or read), but there is an argument that's about a century old, the claim that kids leave school because they're not offered a practical education. That argument confuses what happens inside schools with what happens outside schools. If a teen thinks that she or he can make a living by dropping out and taking a full-time job immediately, then a shop, cosmetology, or other program will be largely irrelevant, because the main consideration is the perceived opportunity cost of staying in school. To address that issue, one must reduce the visible opportunity cost of staying in school, by acting outside the school's walls.
  • Dropout-to-GED programs. This idea is about 15 years old, and I think I saw the first reference to a NYC school program. This idea never made sense to me—you tell a student, "Drop out. Get a GED." If you convince the student to leave, your school is no longer responsible for that teen. In Florida, the school graduation rate goes up in two potential ways, by removing the dropout from the list of those the school's responsible for, and then potentially adding a GED. I don't know if there are any published statistics about the GED success rates of dropout-to-GED programs in general. In any case, there's clear economic evidence that GEDs are not true equivalents for standard diplomas. (Caveat: this argument does not address the social meaning of GEDs or the small number of teens who may be using a GED to accelerate college admissions. I am concerned with the belief that taking a student in trouble and convincing her or him to drop out is somehow a way to increase graduation rates.)
  • Creating something explicitly labeled dropout prevention. In more than 40 years of policies aimed at dropout prevention, I have seen several waves of such dropout prevention programs, and in every case, I know of too many programs that had no constituency with political leverage because they were labeled as dropout prevention. Somehow, the budget cycle at both the state and national levels winnow out such programs with regularity. Repeatedly in the last 40 years, programs labeled dropout prevention have grown up on the margins of school systems, remained marginalized, and died on the margins. You don't usually keep a program running by saying, "Let's design something for the students in trouble, with no secure funding source, and where there is no one with political power to defend it."
But those are my bullheaded thoughts. Tell me what you think schools can do! (What policies outside schools might help is the second half of this discussion.) Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy on July 6, 2006 12:23 AM |