Meeting the Dropout Challenge

11/30/2010 01:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Bridgeland Former Director, White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush

This post was co-authored by Robert Balfanz

Addressing the nation's governors in 2005, Bill Gates stated that America's high schools had become obsolete. The problem with our high schools, he warned, was not just that they were "broken, flawed, and under-funded," but were designed for another age and "cannot teach our kids what they need to know today." As a result, three in ten students failed to graduate on time, many others graduated unprepared for their future, and only one-third of students graduated from high school ready for college, work, and citizenship.

Policymakers, educators, foundation leaders, and citizens got to work, not to stick another band-aid on our schools, but to reinvent them. We now have a much better idea of what works, how to motivate students to complete school, and ways to provide different schools for different student needs.

Today, our organizations are releasing a report that shows significant gains in high school graduation rates across 29 states over the last decade. The number of dropout factory high schools -- those schools graduating 60 percent or less of their students -- fell by 261, from a high of 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 such schools in 2008. This 13 percent decline is significant, given that these high schools produce half of the nation's dropouts every year. These gains translated into 400,000 fewer students attending a dropout factory in 2008 compared to 2002.

A deeper look shows that most progress occurred across 9 southern states, led by Texas and Georgia with 77 and 36 fewer dropout factories, respectively. Certain states, such as Tennessee, Texas, Alabama and Georgia, had improvements in suburbs, towns, cities and rural areas, showing the power of statewide efforts.

Tennessee led the nation with a 15 percentage-point gain in high school graduation rates by rising to a standard of excellence. A long-term effort to add 269,000 college-degree holders to the workforce in Tennessee by 2025 focused reform efforts, and high expectations from the state down to the classroom drove success. In 2001, legislation requiring 15- to 18-year olds to remain in school or have their driver's licenses suspended went into effect, reinforcing high expectations with real incentives.

The state also used data to identify low-performing schools, targeted assistance to the five major urban districts that account for half of the state's economically disadvantaged students, and dispatched experienced teams to work with administrators and teachers to develop model schools, improve teacher practices, and boost student achievement.

Although most declines in dropout factory high schools occurred in suburbs and towns, 22 states had a decline of 127 such schools in urban districts, thought to be chronically unfixable, with cities like New York and Chicago leading the way.

From 2002 to 2008, New York City boosted high school graduation rates, outpacing the majority of the nation's largest city districts, and contributed to New York State's 10-percentage-point gain. The system of small schools and associated support, which replaced large, comprehensive neighborhood schools, appears to have been key to gains for students from high-poverty backgrounds. More personalized learning environments, coupled with more rigor, supports for teachers and leaders, and data to drive results, helped propel success.

Many of the improvements over the last decade are the result of strong leadership, good use of data, innovative school efforts, and a weave of multiple interventions sustained over time. In case after case we studied, we found increased graduation rates in the very schools that strengthened course requirements and made a college prep curriculum the norm. Progress reflects the very strategies supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, governors and mayors, Republican and Democrat policymakers, and social entrepreneurs and non-profit leaders alike.

Despite good progress and breakthrough gains in some states and communities, more than 2 million students still attend a high school in which graduating is close to a 50/50 proposition. To meet the national challenge of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the Class of 2020 (those in 3rd grade today), our nation will need to accelerate the pace of progress fivefold.

To meet this goal, we recommend a Civic Marshall Plan that targets the dropout factory high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools with benchmarks of progress around reading, attendance, early warning data systems, student supports, and school turnaround with pathways to college and careers.

Critical developments in the last few years make accelerated progress possible. For the first time, all states, districts and schools will calculate high school graduation rates the same way, set meaningful goals and be accountable for meeting them. Early warning systems that predict potential dropouts as early as 3rd grade are spreading rapidly and giving teachers and administrators new tools to respond. Non-profits and national service organizations are targeting the dropout problem and mobilizing the mentors, tutors and other adults who can help students most in need. Unprecedented federal support is working to transform the very schools with the most dropouts. Governors, mayors and other leaders are exerting leadership to ensure more students are ready for college and the workforce. And galvanized by Colin and Alma Powell of the America's Promise Alliance and their 100 dropout summits in all 50 states, there is now broad awareness of the individual, societal, economic and civic costs of the dropout crisis.

As our nation moves forward to address its dropout challenge by reinventing education, we should all work toward models of success and replace obsolete schools, honestly admitting failures. It is this process of discovery, both the rewarding and disappointing, that will propel our efforts to ensure all students get the education they deserve and to help the nation compete in the global economy.

John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and Robert Balfanz is co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. They co-authored the report, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, released today with America's Promise Alliance in Washington, D.C. and found at