Education researcher Robert Balfanz quietly coined the term “dropout factory” in 2001 to describe schools in which less than 60 percent of the freshman class remained enrolled four years later. But in 2007, when he labeled more than 2,000 U.S. high schools as dropout factories, the term went viral as the study received widespread attention from news media. However harsh, the label seems to have pushed more communities, government agencies, and corporations to address the problem of failing schools. In a November 2010 progress report, Balfanz offers cautious good news. From 2002 to 2008, the number of dropout factories fell from 2,007 to 1,746. During the same period, the nation’s high school graduation rate rose from 72 percent to 75 percent.
Balfanz, a principal research scientist with Johns Hopkins’ Center for Social Organization of Schools, has focused for more than two decades on how to translate research findings into real improvements. Reform requires a complex weave of efforts tailored to each school, he says, with a few common elements. For example, he advocates programs such as City Year and Communities in Schools, which put volunteers in classrooms to work with students who don’t catch on quickly. Teachers and administrators need more training and planning time, he says. And schools should follow what he calls the “ABCs” of early warning indicators—attendance, behavior, and course performance—to intervene at the first sign of students faltering.
The curriculum, meanwhile, should be relevant and engaging, and teachers and administrators should set high expectations. “In some low-performing schools with high numbers of high-needs kids, implicit and explicit assumptions develop that only some students can and will make it,” Balfanz says. “This creates a downward spiral in which students are not challenged, become bored, and act out, further frustrating the adults in the building.” Over time, students may internalize these low expectations and stop trying, he says.
In his recent report, “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic,” funded by America’s Promise Alliance, an education advocacy organization started by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, Balfanz offers Richmond High School in Wayne County, Indiana, as an example of successful multilayered efforts. Richmond High’s graduation rate jumped from a dismal 53 percent to 80 percent in three years. At the same time, the rate of graduates entering college rose from 66 percent to 77 percent. What worked? Wayne County leaders built a partnership of 30 community agencies, businesses, and volunteer organizations focused on the problems. The group won federal and state funding to increase the Communities in Schools presence, putting more volunteers in all of the district’s schools. They began a ninth-grade academy to help students adjust to high school in that critical first year. And they created dual-enrollment partnerships with area colleges to allow overage students—those older than 18 who left high school without graduating—to complete high school requirements in a different setting while earning college credit.
Balfanz’s data show that schools in the South made the greatest improvements, led by Texas and Georgia. “In the South, schools are organized typically in larger countywide districts, and state departments of education have typically assumed stronger organizing roles,” he says. “Many parts of the Midwest and Northeast have strong traditions of local control and small school districts, so it’s harder to have effective collective action over a large number of schools.” At the same time, governors in the South have recognized that their states’ economic futures rest in improving what have been far lower levels of educational attainment.
To meet the Obama administration’s goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020, the nation’s schools will have to pick up the pace. In 2008, close to 2.2 million students still attended high schools where graduation is not the norm. At least 25 percent of all students, and nearly 40 percent of all minority students, fail to graduate with their class. “Progress is being made, but it’s uneven,” Balfanz concludes. “In some places the progress has been substantial, which shatters the myth that this is largely an intractable problem. So I am optimistic. But everyone needs to do their part.”