Half of Students Drop Out in Large City Schools

Published April 1, 2001

Dropouts are a nationwide problem, with one out of four U.S. high school freshmen quitting school before graduation.

But the dropout problem is most severe in 200 to 300 schools in the country’s 35 largest cities, according to a new study presented at a national conference at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education earlier this year. Speakers at the conference also pointed out that the federal government’s reporting of dropout data severely underestimates the size of the dropout problem.

The theme of the conference, sponsored by Achieve, Inc. and The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, was “Dropouts in America: How Severe is the Problem? What Do We Know About Intervention and Prevention?” Speakers not only provided insights into dropout data and its accuracy but also presented research findings on effective methods for reducing and preventing dropouts.

“As states impose new standards and high-stakes tests for graduation and promotion, some predict our dropout problem will only get more dire,” said Robert Schwartz, president of Achieve, Inc. “Our challenge is to raise academic standards for all students, while simultaneously ensuring that at-risk students receive the support they need to meet the standards and stay in school.”

Although the federal government has been dutifully collecting and reporting dropout data for decades, Phillip Kaufman, a senior research associate at MPR Associates, examined the data and concluded there are large errors in the data collection process. The dropout problem is further confused by the use of different methods and definitions of dropouts at the state, school district, and federal levels.

It was an outrageously low reported dropout rate that prompted Alan Bonsteel to successfully push for a change in dropout reporting in California. (See “How Dropout Rates Hit the Radar Screen in California” and “One in Four U.S. Students Drops Out,” School Reform News, February 2001.)

Especially an Urban Problem

Between 40 and 50 percent of the central high schools in the 35 largest cities in the U.S. graduate less than half of their ninth grade class, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters. Ninety percent of the schools that graduate less than 30 percent of their ninth grade class are concentrated in just six cities: New York, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The dropout situation is most severe in large schools with more than 900 students and minority enrollments of 90 percent or more.

In some cities, the dropout problem increased dramatically during the early 1990s. The most severe case was Milwaukee, where five out of 11 high schools graduated less than half of their ninth grade students in 1989. By 1995, 11 out of the city’s 12 high schools graduated less than half of their ninth grade students.

One factor identified by several speakers as key in the dropout decision was the student’s experience in ninth grade–the time when students discover whether their K-8 education has adequately prepared them for academic work at the high school level.

For example, about half of Philadelphia’s high school freshmen are not promoted to tenth grade, indicating they were ill-prepared for high school. Research findings from the University of Pennsylvania suggest this failure in ninth grade contributes substantially to the probability that a student will eventually drop out. Ninth-graders who feel unsafe in school also are more likely to drop out.

“Targeting kids in the ninth grade, when they are most vulnerable to dropping out, is one effective way to curb the problem,” said Gary Orfield, codirector of The Civil Rights Project.

Directions for Reform

The dropout problem is of such alarming proportions in many high-poverty urban high schools that “powerful comprehensive reforms” are needed to realistically produce significant improvements, according to James McPartland of the Center for the Social Organization of Schooling at Johns Hopkins University. Among the innovations he proposed was not to shunt poorly prepared ninth-graders into low-level courses, but to offer them remedial academic classes and catch-up learning activities.

While there may be general agreement that the dropout problem needs to have more resources directed to it, there’s much less agreement about where those resources should come from.

For example, on February 22 the New Mexico Senate approved legislation proposed by President Pro Tem Richard Romero to allow private contractors to educate public school dropouts. But Republican Governor Gary Johnson is likely to veto the Albuquerque Democrat’s bill–as he did with a similar bill two years ago–because it would involve additional state spending rather than taking the money out of existing public schools funds already are intended for the education of these students.