• by Laurie Posner, M.P.A. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2008 • Laurie Posner

Against a backdrop of rising 21st Century consequences for students who leave high school without a diploma, school and community leaders are looking for new ways to raise graduation rates. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, students who drop out of high school are now almost four times more likely to be unemployed than those who graduate from college. More than half of the fastest growing occupations now call for an associate degree or higher (2007). And today’s jobs require people to think critically, collaborate and find innovative solutions, which are skills students develop as they encounter increasingly complex ideas and problems (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008).

Beyond the common-sense economics of education, a good education also is an invitation to each child to join in a common conversation. Students who leave school lose pathways to either destination – a better paycheck and a bigger world of possibilities. And these losses aren’t random.

Despite what the 14th Amendment demands, weak school holding power consistently keeps low-income, African American, Latino and Native American students from benefiting equally under the law. IDRA’s 2008 annual study of attrition in Texas public schools, for example, finds that in 2007-08, 33 percent or 132,815 students were lost from public school enrollment in Texas. Almost four out of 10 (38 percent) Black and Native American students, and more than two in five Hispanic students (44 percent), were lost to attrition.

These outcomes fall far short of what most Americans want for children (Lake Research Partners, 2006). The problem of weak school holding power will persist, however, as long as we frame the problem and respond to it in more or less the same ways. This article pairs current responses with course corrections, offering recommendations for change with an eye trained on equity.

From Recovery to Revamping

This time of year, school districts around the country enlist business leaders, civic leaders and celebrities to pound the pavement and pay a visit to former students where they live. Referred to as “Reach Out to Drop Outs” day in Texas, these initiatives extend a personal appeal to students to return to school. Laudable as such efforts are, it is unclear how students fare once they return. Consensus is clear on two points, however: (1) it is better to strengthen schools to prevent student attrition in the first place, and (2) students who return are only likely to stay if changes are in place that engage them in learning and support them on the path to success.

“Grafting additional staff and programs onto existing ineffective structures” and intervention without follow-up have long been considered unworkable approaches (Woods, 1995). A set of interrelated strategies and supports for students at key transition points are far more effective. These include: (1) addressing academic barriers and achievement gaps; (2) strengthening student engagement and eliminating barriers to attendance; (3) raising teaching quality and ensuring equitable distribution of highly qualified teachers; (4) improving curriculum quality and access for diverse learners; (5) addressing school policies and practices that disproportionately affect underserved students; and (6) engaging families and community members as meaningful partners (Allensworth, et al., 2007, Hammond, et al., 2007, Levin, 2007, Robledo Montecel, 2007). These strategies clearly privilege “first chance” prevention over “second chance” recovery but they also suggest that when recovery is our next best bet, it must be coupled with revamping systems to keep students from being lost again and again.

Within system change strategies, improving teaching and instructional quality is key. A recent study on teaching quality in Texas finds: “High-performing schools consistently had far greater aggregate teacher quality,” while “low-performing schools with high poverty rates and high minority populations had much higher numbers of teachers teaching out of field” not “fully certified and inexperienced” (Fuller, 2008).

Proven Practice: Strengthening Teaching Quality through Smaller Learning Communities

In south Texas, IDRA is partnering with a school district to implement a model for raising teaching quality and reducing dropout rates. A growing body of research finds that professional learning communities, combined with mentoring, improve outcomes for students and staff. IDRA has assisted the district in creating smaller learning communities to support secondary students who were previously at risk of dropping out. Through this learning community, students’ reading scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) increased at a statistically significant level, student attendance rose, no at-risk student dropped out, and there were many fewer disciplinary problems (Montemayor & Cortez, 2007).

From Estrangement to Engagement

Students at the margins of school systems are increasingly pushed out for disciplinary reasons. Studies suggest that disciplinary programs and zero tolerance policies, while intended to keep students safe, may be exacerbating the problem of student alienation. Texas’s Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP) is one telling example. Created in 1995 to address student violations of the state criminal code and other serious offenses, DAEP has been marked by mission creep. Five years into implementation, only one in four students referred to DAEPs had committed serious offenses (Cortez and Robledo Montecel, 1999). Special education and minority students are disproportionately represented in referrals, and very young children – including pre-kindergartners– are increasingly referred (Texas Appleseed, 2007, Cortez and Cortez, 2008). Students typically encounter less rigorous curricula in DAEPs, moving success further out of reach on their return. Despite these problems, DAEP referrals are up 93 percent in just a decade (Cortez and Cortez, 2008).

The distribution and expansion of referrals places us on a “slippery slope” toward segregation, raising important 14th Amendment concerns. This is underscored by poor outcomes: students drop out of DAEPs at five times the rate of children in mainstream programs (Appleseed, 2007).

Successful initiatives, in contrast, are ensuring pro-actively that students of all backgrounds are academically, cognitively and socially engaged in school. They use referral only as a last resort, when safety is truly at risk.

Promising Practice: Systemic Student Engagement

In addition to small learning environments, systemic approaches to prevention have recently included a focus on adolescent literacy. This is because most students who leave school are reading at several grade levels behind their peers (Steinberg and Almeida, 2004). IDRA’s Engagement-Based Sheltered Instruction model is one example of a professional development approach that improves literacy, language skills and content mastery among students who are English language learners by foregrounding student engagement. Consistently correlated with higher academic achievement, student engagement “cannot happen only at the classroom level” but also “has to happen at the broader school or system level” (Grayson, 2008).

In a partnership with a west Texas school district, for example, the model has proven effective at helping teachers hone skills and abilities to assess whether and to what extent their students are engaged in learning, build a sense of community in their classrooms that is conducive to learning, and expand student concentration, confidence and active involvement (Solís and Grayson, 2007).

From Faulting to Valuing

Students’ families, background or home language often are cited as causes of failure in school. Or, teachers, no matter what their resources or preparation, are categorically blamed. Neither response engenders constructive action. Miller illustrates the problem in a discussion of what he terms circular causation: “Teacher feels pupil’s behavior could be improved if only his mother would ‘cooperate with school’ and accept there is a problem. Teacher makes sure that each incident, however small, is reported home.” In turn: “Mother feels that teacher makes a fuss about the smallest things and is picking on her son. So in order to protect him, she challenges the significance of each reported incident” (2007). Far more successful are school-based changes to improve teaching and learning and programmatic approaches that value and build on the diverse language, cultural and experiential capital students bring.

Proven Practice: Valuing Youth

IDRA’s longitudinal evaluation of its Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program – a cross-age tutoring dropout prevention model – shows the value of combining robust instructional strategies with student recognition and support strategies. The program’s lifeblood, however, is not a collection of interventions but “an uncompromising belief that all students can and will learn and that schools must value all students” (Supik, 1994).

Research on IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, implemented in the United States and Brazil, shows that the single most important factor in keeping students in school is to ensure that there is at least one caring adult who values the student, follows the student’s progress and helps the student stay on track. The results are evident: since the program’s inception in 1984, over 98 percent of participating students stay in school. To date, the program has kept in school more than 25,000 young people who were previously considered at risk of dropping out.

The Commitment to Change

On forward-looking campuses around the country, dedicated teachers, administrators, students, families and community members are working together to put new strategies into practice. Combined with research, these first-hand findings are a window on how we can achieve improved results in every school. Constructive change cannot occur, however, unless we allow these practices to act as a crowbar, prying us away from unworkable practices, and as a searchlight, guiding us toward action that values all youth.


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Laurie Posner, M.P.A., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2008, IDRA. The following article originally appeared in the October 2008 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]