June 9th, 2014

Balfanz: Stop Holding Us Back

This month, more than three million high school students will receive their diplomas. At more than 80 percent, America’s graduation rate is at a record high. More kids are going to college, too. But one-third of the nation’s African-American and Latino young men will not graduate.

In an era when there is virtually no legal work for dropouts, these young men face a bleak future. It is not news that the students who don’t make it out of high school largely come from our poorest neighborhoods, but the degree to which they are hyper-concentrated in a small set of schools is alarming. In fact, according to new research I conducted with my colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, half of the African-American boys who veer off the path to high school graduation do so in just 660 of more than 12,600 regular and vocational high schools.

These 660 schools are typically big high schools that teach only poor kids of color. They are concentrated in 15 states. Many are in major cities, but others are in smaller, decaying industrial cities or in the South, especially in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.

This seemingly intractable problem is a national tragedy, but there is a solution. In the high schools where most of the young men are derailed, the number of ninth-grade boys who desperately need better schooling and extra support is typically between 50 and 100. Keeping many or even most of those boys on track in each entering ninth-grade class in 660 schools does not seem impossible.

If we know where to focus our efforts, we can put strategies in place that have shown promise, particularly over the last few years. While early childhood is critical, the most treacherous time for young African-American and Latino men is from ages 11 to 21. At the very moment they are the most developmentally vulnerable, the response from schools, foster care, the health system and child protective services gets weaker, while the response from the justice system is harsher. Their family responsibilities grow, and their neighborhoods turn meaner. Their middle and high school experience becomes make or break.

But the secondary schools these students attend are not specifically designed for them. It is not unusual for up to half the students to miss a month or more of school, and often more students are suspended in a year than graduate. In a 22-school sample that we studied closely, nearly all ninth-grade students were either too old for their grades, had repeated ninth grade, needed special education, were chronically absent or had academic skills at the seventh grade level or below. The norm in this environment is to fail classes and then repeat ninth grade. But most students do no better the second time around. Either they drop out then or they may briefly transfer to another school before dropping out later. This is a highly predictable, almost mechanical course, which is why we call those schools dropout factories.

We have also learned that most students who eventually drop out can be identified as early as the sixth grade by their attendance, behavior and course performance, according to studies by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins, where I am the director, and the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Using those indicators, it is possible to identify by the middle of ninth grade virtually everyone who will drop out. These young men are waving their hands early and often to say they need help, but our educational and student-support systems aren’t organized to recognize and respond to their distress signals.

In 2008, my colleagues and I decided to focus on those struggling sixth and ninth graders. What if we reorganized entire schools with teams of teachers who shared a common group of students? What if we added more time for English and math and offered coaching for teachers and principals? What if we welcomed students to school, called them if they didn’t show up and helped with homework? What if we used an early warning system that identified struggling students based on their poor attendance, behavior and course performance and then worked to get each student back on track?

To try to provide all that, we developed Diplomas Now, a partnership of three national nonprofits, which works with more than 30,000 students in 40 of the toughest middle and high schools in 14 big cities. (Although I am focusing here on boys, because they have lower graduation rates than girls, the program is coed.)

To evaluate our progress, MDRC, a social policy research organization, is conducting a randomized field trial. Initial indications are positive. In the 2012-13 school year, the program achieved a 41 percent reduction in chronically absent students, a 70 percent reduction in suspended students, a 69 percent reduction in students failing English and a 52 percent reduction in students failing math.

This is not an anomalous result. A recent study of public schools in Chicago shows that getting students back on track in the ninth grade leads to higher graduation rates and that African-American males in particular experience the greatest benefits when schools are reorganized to focus on ninth grade.

What do we need to do on a national scale? First, high-poverty secondary schools need to be redesigned with the special problems of their students in mind, with a focus on freshman year. In practice, this means starting new schools and transforming existing ones.

Second, early warning systems need to be instituted so that teachers and other committed adults can step in at the first sign a student is in trouble, whether it’s cutting class, mouthing off or floundering in English or math.

Third, we should employ additional adults to support students who need daily nagging and nurturing to succeed, especially during the key transitional years in sixth and ninth grades.

We also need the larger community, including local businesses and faith-based organizations, to mentor students by showing them how to set goals, apply to college and acquire workplace skills.

This sounds expensive, but it does not have to be, particularly if we stop wasting money on failed strategies like holding kids back in high school. Asking struggling students to repeat a grade under the same circumstances almost guarantees the same result.

We are already paying a lot for failure. On average, holding a student back costs $11,000. The 660 high schools that produce half of African-American male dropouts spend more than $500 million a year to retain more than 46,000 boys and girls in ninth grade.

There is an unexpected path forward, the outlines of which are in view. We can provide our most vulnerable children with a better chance for adult success. They deserve no less.

Robert Balfanz is a research professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and the director of the Everyone Graduates Center.

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