Chapter 1
III. Demonstrating that the dropout crisis is solvable

The message to convey to your community is that the high school graduation challenge is a real and significant problem that affects the whole community, but it is solvable with sufficient community foresight and effort. This confidence is based on facts — and lots of them. We know early which students are likely to drop out – in time to intervene and keep them on, or return them to, the graduation path.

We continue to accumulate information about potential and actual dropouts. This information gives us insight into:

  • who drops out;
  • where the dropouts are;
  • why students drop out;
  • what will help them stay on the graduation path; and
  • which interventions and reforms are most successful.

One of the most powerful forces in our favor is that students do not want to drop out. They want to graduate. The vast majority of dropouts regret doing so. Many call it the worst decision of their lives.1

Who drops out?

It is now possible to identify students as early as the elementary grades and with considerable certainty by the sixth grade who are most at risk of dropping out of high school — unless they get help. These students are identified by the ABCs of staying on track to graduate: Attendance, Behavior, and Course performance, and in the upper grades, credit accrual. We can address these school-based early warning signs with appropriate support within our schools and communities. We can identify problems early and address them before students become dropout statistics.

Where are the dropouts?

Continuing research and analysis of graduation rates indicate that 40 percent of this country’s dropouts come from about 1,400, or 11 percent, of America’s high schools. Known as “dropout factories,” these schools are often in high-poverty neighborhoods- urban and rural- with students who face unusual challenges, both in school and out. In most communities high schools with graduation rates below 70 percent produce the majority of dropouts.  Starting your community’s graduation campaign in these low-performing high schools and their feeder middle schools will concentrate your efforts and attack the largest part of the problem.

Why do students drop out?

The Silent Epidemic1 report itemizes students’ reasons:

  • Nearly 70 percent of dropouts said they were not motivated to work hard, and two-thirds would have worked harder if more had been demanded of them.
  • Approximately one-third left for personal reasons (to get a job, become a parent, or care for a family member), and one-third cited “failing in school” as a major factor.
  • More than 80 percent said their chances of staying in school would have increased if classes were more interesting and provided opportunities for real-world learning.
  • Four out of five wanted better teachers, and 75 percent wanted more individualized instruction.
  • Contrary to what one might expect, 70 percent were confident they could have graduated, including a majority with low grade point averages.

What will help students stay on the graduation path?

We know from experience and research that many struggling students need constant support to return to, and stay on, the graduation path. This assistance is both academic and non-academic. Students need help to master reading comprehension and mathematics skills at grade level, and to understand why schooling matters to their future so that they are motivated to persevere and learn. They also often need help to overcome obstacles at home, in their neighborhood and community and within themselves to succeed in school. Supporting students to stay in school and graduate requires a multi-pronged approach, including academic extra-help classes. tutoring and mentoring, counseling, medical or mental health care, and other social services that schools are often unable to provide on their own. Sometimes it requires helping students find part-time employment to stay in school.

The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is indeed apt. Alliances among schools, districts and the community – youth-focused agencies and nonprofits, for instance – can help identify and provide these interventions and services, matched to the students in need. Community agencies and faith-based organizations, working with the schools, can also coach and support parents about how to support their children, helping them set and meet learning goals, or launch community-wide advocacy campaigns about the importance of graduating.

Effective interventions and reforms exist

In the past decade we have made tremendous progress in growing an evidence base of what works to keep students on the path to high school graduation. Chapter 3 provides information on this in detail. The U.S. Department of Education also is identifying programs that do work, based on rigorous evaluation, and investing in promising approaches through its grant-making process to states, districts, schools, and nonprofits that work in comprehensive school and district reform.


  1. Bridgeland et al., (2006) The Silent Epidemic Perspectives of High School Dropouts.  

  2. Bridgeland et al., (2006) The Silent Epidemic Perspectives of High School Dropouts.  

Deeper Look

Promise Neighborhoods. The U. S. Department of Education awards grants to improve educational outcomes in some of the country’s most distressed communities. http://www2.ed.gov/programs/promiseneighborhoods/index.html

U.S. Department of Education What Works Clearing House: The Clearinghouse reviews research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education and focuses on the results from high-quality research, to find out what works in education- http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/

U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation (i3) grants.

http://www2.ed.gov/programs/innovation/index.html

The annual Building a Grad Nation reports have been presenting case studies of states, districts and schools that have made strong progress. There is not a single approach behind this success, but there are common characteristics:

  • Strong leadership with clear graduation rate goals;
  • Public and private collaboration guided by data;
  • Commitment to innovation and continuous improvement;
  • Technical assistance for evidence-based solutions; and
  • High expectations, improving policies, and increasing student supports.

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