How many times do you hear America’s public high schools called “Dropout Factories?” How do those words make you feel? The general public hears these words and unfairly accepts that our public high schools and the teachers working in them are failing.
Dropout Factories were highlighted in the awful anti-public school propaganda film Waiting for Superman by Davis Guggenheim. The film was backed by Bill Gates.
What student wants to set foot in a school called a Dropout Factory? They will run to the nearest charter school called some fabricated B.S. name like Success for YOU! or the Arts and Music (and everything your Dropout Factory doesn’t have) Academy.
Poor high schools deserve help, not a negative label. I once taught in a struggling school and it was no picnic. I didn’t realize how difficult it had been until I later worked in a wealthier school.
It is also troubling that those who condemn public schools don’t stand up for changing the bad policies or existing conditions—real reasons why students drop out. Instead, sanctions are advocated, or these issues are ignored. Schools lose funds and they are punished, when funding was likely already an issue.
Here are possible solutions that are pushed under the radar when it comes to the problem of dropouts. All of them would be especially helpful to students living in poverty.
- Ending grade retention. In 2002, research by Jimerson, Anderson, and Whipple indicated that retention leads to dropping out. A systematic review of seventeen studies examining dropping out of high school prior to graduation demonstrates that grade retention is one of the most powerful predictors of dropout status. Yet, in states like Florida, student retention, often based on a standardized test score, is hailed as a solution by politicians and school critics. The research is ignored. If this country is serious about keeping students in school, end third grade retention!
- Lowering class size. The STAR Tennessee study showed that lowering class size in K-3rd grade made a positive difference in student progress. But there have been few, if any, attempts to lower class size in these important grade levels. Why? Studies also show that class size matters at the middle and high school levels. Overcrowded classes and schools are serious issues that should be addressed. If so many are worried about dropouts, why not lower class sizes especially in schools with students at-risk of dropping out?
- School-based after-school programs and school psychologists. Not only should the President not end after-school programs, according to Davies and Peltz, (2012), it would be a good idea to add school psychologists to the mix. We know that at-risk youth tend to feel better-connected and will feel more inclined to stay in school if they have an after-school program they can attend. School psychologists can help students better work out their difficulties.
- Increasing counselors. Many elementary, middle, and high schools do not have enough counselors to meet student needs. Providing at-risk students with counseling every step of the way is critical. Why isn’t there greater effort to add school counselors to our schools?
- Better Special Education. Children with serious behavior problems deserve special assistance. Throwing them into a general classroom for the sake of inclusion will not address their problems adequately. Schools need a continuum of educational and behavioral services for students. And parents must have available options within their schools. Teachers also need to be specially trained. So why are special education services being eliminated?
- School nurses. School nurses keep students in school. Read about why one school nurse for 4,000 students isn’t going to work. If children are not well, they can’t concentrate. We know the importance of school nurses, yet how many schools have qualified nurses? How many schools at all levels still function without any nurse?
Robert Balfanz, is the Johns Hopkins researcher who coined the term Dropout Factory. He holds a B.A. in history from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD in education from the University of Chicago. He has written and spoken much about the dropout problem.
Balfanz and Johns Hopkins University are involved in several school programs about the dropout problem including: Everyone Graduates, Diplomas Now and the Talent Development Secondary Reform Model. They deal with important issues:
- trying to understand and address poverty,
- connecting with parents,
- tracking why students are chronically absent,
- involving the school staff in getting to know students,
- ensuring there is one adult at the school who cares about a student,
- the importance of extracurricular activities,
- teacher teams, and
- other noteworthy suggestions that good schools might consider.
The term “evidence-based” is often used. Balfanz appears to have done much decent research about dropouts, but why use such a troubling term to damn public schools? Here he says:
We acknowledge that some people may view the term “Dropout Factory” has [sic] a harsh and unfair term. We use it to describe a harsh and unfair situation, under-resourced and over-challenged high schools which educate primarily low income and minority students and year after year are unableto graduate the majority or near majority of students who enter the school. We recognize that these schools are filled with hard working and dedicated teachers and administrators and resilient students. Our goal is to shine a spotlight on what has been called a “Silent Epidemic” the low graduation rates of the nation’s low income and minority students and to demonstrate that the dropout crisis is concentrated in a relatively small sub-set of schools. This potentially makes solutions more possible as resources and supports can be targeted to where they are most needed.
Balfanz’s credentials are impressive. But while I think he has done some good work when it comes to understanding the dropout problem. I also believe he is tied to corporate school reform.
- He received an Investing in Innovation (I3) validation grant. A year ago Education Week reported that these innovation grants, established through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), went to school districts but also to reform groups like Teach for America and KIPP.
- Then there are the Alliance For Excellent Education and the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grade Reform awards. These are both Bill & Melinda Gates backed programs.
- Last, Robert Balfanz is a Middle School Matters Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.
In addition, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education has been involved in data-driven school reform initiatives, and they highlight Teach for America. Several of their programs are connected to school reform groups that would like to privatize public schools.
It is important to try to understand why students drop out of school. But you can’t pick and choose possible reasons, and call them evidence-based, without paying attention and demanding change when it comes to all the existing factors. And evidence won’t work if real reasons for dropping out are ignored.
We need to quit calling our high schools Dropout Factories. And we need to fund all the solutions we know will have an positive impact on at-risk students and their schools.
Jimerson, Shane R. 2002. Gabrielle E. Anderson, and Angela D, Whipple. “Winning the Battle and Losing the War: Examining the Relationship Between Grade Retention and Dropping Out of High School.” Psychology in the Schools. 39 (4): 441-457.
Mosteller, Frederick. “The Tennessee Study of Class Size in the Early Grades.” The Future of Children. Summer/Fall 1995. p. 113-127.
“The Importance of Class Size in the Middle and Upper Grades.” www.classsizematters.org.
Davies, Susan C. and Lindsay J. Peltz. 2012. “At-Risk Students in After-School Programs: Outcomes and Recommendations.” Principal Leadership. October 2012. 12-16.
Camera, Lauren. “Many School Districts Don’t Have Enough Nurses.” U.S. News & World Report. March 23, 2016.