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LOCATING THE DROPOUT CRISIS: Almost 50 Percent of African-American Students Attend Weak High Schools

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Balfanz and Legters write, "Increasing momentum for high school reform is a promising development but must not become a passing fad. With sustained commitment and judicious use of resources, transforming the American high school will be a powerful vehicle to achieving a more just and prosperous society."

Nearly half of our nation’s African-American students and nearly 40 percent of Latino students attend high schools in which graduation is not the norm, according to a new study by researchers at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. Using data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), researchers Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters measured the “promoting power” of 10,000 regular and vocational high schools with enrollments of more than 300 students.

According to Balfanz and Legters, schools have “weak promoting power” if the freshman class shrinks by 40 percent or more by the time students reach their senior year. These schools are overwhelmingly attended by minority students. By comparison, only 11 percent of white students attend these aptly named “dropout factories.”

The statistics presented in their report, Locating the Dropout Crisis, are deeply troubling. In 2,000 high schools across the country, a typical freshman class shrinks by 40 percent or more by the time students reach their senior year. And the numbers are getting worse: between 1993 and 2002, the number of high schools with weak promoting power increased by 75 percent.

Nearly half of the nation’s dropout factories are in the South and Southwest. Five southern states-Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas- collectively lead the nation in both total number and level of concentration of high schools with weak promoting power. Northern states do not fare much better, according to the report. More than half of African-American students in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania attend high schools where the majority of students do not graduate on time, if at all. African-American students in these states are up to ten times more likely than white students to attend a high school with very weak promoting power, high numbers of dropouts, and low graduation rates.

Balfanz and Legters, who have worked to reform failing high schools for a decade, write that “these findings are a call to action. We must no longer tolerate the squandered potential, limited life chances, and social malaise that result from poorly educating our nation’s youth.”

The authors suggest several solutions to resolve the crisis faced by students who attend these underperforming high schools. Their recommendations include making middle schools more effective so that students come to high school prepared, and comprehensive high school reform (which includes changes in the way schools are organized, courses geared to the needs and interests of students, and extensive training and support for teachers).

They also call for a substantial increase in the resources available to transform or replace the high schools that produce the greatest number of dropouts. Additional resources would make a marked difference, they argue, since minority high schools with more resources (such as selective programs, higher per-pupil expenditures, and a suburban location) successfully promote students to senior status at the same rate as majority white schools.

The authors note that no one strategy or reform model will work for all schools or locations, but point out that a national effort to dramatically improve the education provided to students who attend the 2,000 high schools where graduation is not the norm would bring enormous economic and social returns to the nation.

Balfanz and Legters write, “Increasing momentum for high school reform is a promising development but must not become a passing fad. With sustained commitment and judicious use of resources, transforming the American high school will be a powerful vehicle to achieving a more just and prosperous society.”

The complete report, Locating the Dropout Crisis, including charts with state-by-state information, is available athttp://www.csos.jhu.edu/tdhs/rsch/Locating_Dropouts.pdf.

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