Preventing high school dropouts: What really works?

Last year’s high school dropouts will cost North Carolina an estimated $4.4 billion in lost income, taxes and productivity over the students’ lifetimes, according to a recent Alliance for Excellent Education report.[1]  Although most people understand that education level affects income, it may come as a surprise just how much of a difference a high school diploma can make for both an individual’s earnings and wealth and to the community at large. 

In 2009, median earnings for high school dropouts were $19,540, compared to $27,380 for high school graduates who have no further education, $36,190 for those with some college or an associate’s degree, and $46,930 for those with a four-year college degree.[2]  According to a 2005 study, households headed by high school graduates accumulate 10 times more wealth than those headed by high school dropouts.[3]

Lower earnings and wealth for people without diplomas affect local, state, and national economies through reduced buying power, lower tax revenues, diminished worker productivity and more spending on social assistance programs. Further, states and cities with less educated populations find it harder to attract new business investment.

High school dropouts also exact social costs. They are more likely to commit crimes and less likely to engage in civic activities like voting and volunteering than peers with high school diplomas. They are also more likely to be teen parents and raise less healthy, less educated children. 

A 2006 story in Time magazine captured the dropout paradox brilliantly: “Dropping out of high school today is to your societal health what smoking is to your physical health, an indicator of a host of poor outcomes to follow, from low lifetime earnings to high incarceration rates to a high likelihood that your children will drop out of high school and start the cycle anew.”[4]

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the official dropout count for the 2010-11 school year was 1,442.[5]  Look at the graduation statistics, however, and you find only 6,878 of the 9,359 students (73.5 percent) who entered ninth grade four years earlier graduated, leaving 2,481 who did not.[6]

It is this chronic problem that United Way aims to address through its Collective Impact Initiative for Children & Youth. Click here to learn more about this project. One key component of the project’s first year was to scour the research on the dropout problem to identify: 1) factors that affect the likelihood of a child dropping out of school (all the way from conception to the high school years) and 2) related strategies that have proven effective at keeping at-risk children in school through graduation. The Larry King Center of the Council for Children’s Rights conducted this comprehensive review and recently produced an annotated bibliography with more than 40 peer-reviewed studies, a summary table of the many dropout predictors identified in those studies and a summary table of research-informed dropout prevention programs

What causes kids to drop out?

The simple answer to this question is that there is no simple answer.  No one risk factor can predict which children will drop out. Instead, a combination of factors at different points in a child’s life and from multiple angles turn a student into a dropout. 

This research identified more than 50 school dropout predictors.  They fall all over the developmental timeframe and were grouped into categories: conception to age 3, preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school.

Although the bulk of the identified predictors occur in middle and high school years, many scholars point to the early years of child development as the most critical. Brain development research over many years shows that conditions and experiences in the first five years of life have significant influence on long-term outcomes.  The achievement gap that emerges in third-grade test scores is often already in place by the time children enter kindergarten, growing more entrenched with every year.

Moreover, many of what are considered “predictors” are symptoms of an advanced stage in the dropout process. For example, chronic absenteeism in middle or high school is often cited as a strong predictor for dropping out. But for a student perpetually absent from school, dropping out entirely is not a big leap. His or her state of chronic absenteeism usually results from the progression of other factors such as disengagement in class, uninvolved parents, or having a peer group who behave similarly.

These factors also involve many different aspects of a child’s life. Some center on the child (e.g., academic achievement or problem behaviors), while others are the domain of family (e.g., parent involvement or stressful home environment) or community (e.g., high neighborhood poverty or crime). Some relate to academic ability, such as the ability to read by third grade, while others are facets of behavior, such as aggressive behavior. Still others emerge out of physical health, such as low birth weight. Click here to see the full list of predictors.

Research-informed dropout prevention programs

Although many programs aim to keep children in school, few can prove definitively with research that they achieve this goal. This research identified programs that have been able to demonstrate success through research studies, and then classified them based on the rigor of those studies into three categories: well-supported programs (most rigorous), supported programs and promising programs (least rigorous). 

Of the hundreds (if not thousands) of dropout prevention programs across the country, only 23 met the standards considered “research-informed.”  This is not to say only 23 programs effectively reduce the number of dropouts. There are undoubtedly many more effective programs, but only these 23 have been able to illustrate their efficacy with rigorous research studies.  

Six of these programs are being implemented in Charlotte. They are Newborn Individualized Developmental Care and Assessment Programs (NIDCAP), in which some individuals in Charlotte are trained; Nurse-Family Partnership, implemented by Care Ring; The Incredible Years run by Thompson Child & Family Focus; Reach Out and Read administered by three pediatric clinics; Parents as Teachers implemented by YMCA, Communities In Schools’ Safe Journeys and Children’s Home Society Right Start for Life; and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

These model programs all share some critical characteristics. They operate in similar environments, which tend to be smaller, offer more individual attention and impart a sense of belonging to the school community. They place great importance on building relationships between children and adults. In academics, the programs provide individual assistance and focus heavily on reading and writing skills, but also include career, life, social and problem-solving skills as well. Finally, the programs recognize the importance of family in children’s success in school and emphasize family involvement.

What’s next?

First, the identified dropout predictors will directly inform the creation of a logic model[7] for the Collective Impact Initiative, which connects all of the programs involved to the long-term outcome of raising the graduation rate.  The characteristics of the research-informed programs will serve as best practices that agencies might be encouraged to adopt to enhance the impact of their programs.  Ultimately, this research is intended to help United Way and the agencies involved in Collective Impact improve their services and decrease the number of school dropouts in our community. 

Laura Simmons

 


[1] Alliance for Excellent Education, The High Cost of High School Dropouts: What the Nation Pays for Inadequate High Schools. Issue Brief, Nov. 2011, Washington, D.C.

[2] Snyder, T. & Dillow, S. (2011). Digest of Education Statistics 2010. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences.

[3] Gouskova, E. & Stafford, F. (2005). Trends in household wealth dynamics, 2001-2003. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

[4] Thornburgh, N. (2006). Dropout Nation. Time. April 9, 2006.

[5] North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. (2011). Annual Report on Dropout Events and Rate. (http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/research/dropout/reports/2010-11/713countsrates.pdf)

[6] North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. (2011). 4-Year Cohort Graduation Rates: 2007-08 Entering 9th Graders Graduating in 2010-11 or Earlier. (http://www.ncpublicschools.org/accountability/reporting/cohortgradrate)

[7] A logic model lays out the reasoning behind a program and shows how and why a program's activities should lead to a particular result.