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FOCUS ON DROPOUT FACTORIES: Associated Press Article Spotlights Low-Performing High Schools, Draws Criticism from Many School Officials

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"If you're born in a neighborhood or town where the only high school is one where graduation is not the norm, how is this living in the land of equal opportunity?" Balfanz said.

An October 29 Associated Press (AP) story that focused on the approximately 1,700 regular or vocational high schools across the country that are considered “dropout factories” made waves in both the education world and the mainstream media. Dropout factories, a term coined by Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz, are high schools where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year.

“If you’re born in a neighborhood or town where the only high school is one where graduation is not the norm, how is this living in the land of equal opportunity?” Balfanz said.

In addition to the article, the AP also provided reporters with a list of dropout factories in each state, which Balfanz developed using a three-year average for the high school Classes of 2006, 2005, and 2004. He further restricted the sample to regular and vocational high schools; high schools that enroll at least one hundred students and had at least a tenth and twelfth grade; and schools that had complete data for all three classes.

According to Balfanz’s analysis, Utah, which has low poverty rates and fewer minorities than most other states, is the only state without a dropout factory. On the other end of the spectrum, about half of the high schools in Florida and South Carolina are considered dropout factories.

Surprised to be confronted with a list of schools characterized as dropout factories, many school officials took issue with the study, its terminology, and its methods. For example, several pointed out that the report does not adjust for students who die or students who transfer to another school and graduate but who are still counted as dropouts.

Others pointed to their “official” high school graduation rates and noted that they were much higher-sometimes as much as 20 or 30 percent-than those in the Johns Hopkins study. But, according to Bethany Little, vice president for policy and federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, therein lies part of the problem.

“The unacceptably low graduation rates of America’s youth have been obscured for far too long by inaccurate data, misleading calculations and reporting, and flawed accountability systems at the state and federal levels,” she said in a statement on Google News. “But Johns Hopkins University’s promoting power calculation … can serve as a warning sign that there is a problem that is causing a school to lose many of its students. If a school’s senior class has significantly fewer students than had been enrolled as freshmen three years before, it should be a signal to question where those students have gone. Sure, some may have transferred out-but 30 or 40 percent of them? And shouldn’t others have transferred in to take their places?”

Some educators took umbrage on behalf of their teachers and principals and said that the Johns Hopkins study “defames” a school or “sensationalizes” a serious problem that school officials are aware of and are trying to fix. “This was hurtful to the principals, you could hear the wind go out of their sail,” Deborah Gonzalez, assistant superintendent for instruction and accountability at Phoenix Union High School District told the Arizona Republic.

On the Johns Hopkins website, Balfanz addressed his detractors. He stressed that the report was created not to criticize dedicated teachers and administrators, but to draw attention to a serious problem in many of the nation’s high schools. He writes:

We acknowledge that some people may view the term ‘Dropout Factory’ as 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 unable to 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.

 

Although the report drew a lot of criticism, there was also evidence that Balfanz achieved his goal of shining a spotlight on the epidemic. A search on Google News for “dropout factories” returns nearly three hundred articles on the report, from a wide variety of sources ranging from the Anchorage Daily News to the Washington Post and Yahoo.com. Further evidence that the tipping point may be close came from an editorial in the Montgomery [AL] Advertiser.

“But no matter how much progress the state has made or how its graduation rate is figured, it is clear that far too many students still do not graduate on time or at all. The state needs to put even more energy into figuring out why, and then what can be done about it,” it reads. “For now, the difficulty of comparing official graduation rates has allowed educators to challenge studies such as the one released by Johns Hopkins University. But in two years, valid official comparisons should be possible. Then Alabamians should be able to tell which schools are truly ‘dropout factories.'”

The AP article is available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21531704/. The list of dropout factories, and Balfanz’s explanation of how the data was calculated are available at http://web.jhu.edu/CSOS/images/AP.html.

The Alliance website maintains a database of most of the high schools in the United States-those that are dropout factories and those that are not. To see how individual high schools perform or to find out which high schools in the various states or Congressional districts are dropout factories, go to https://all4ed.org/promotingpower.

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