Fix or replace Dropout Factories

EdWeek ran a useful commentary by friends from JFF and Johns Hopkins that outlined the range of challenges faced by states in fixing the roughly 2,000 high schools with graduation rates below 60%.  Like the authors, I appreciate Secretary Duncan’s laser focus on attacking chronic failure–something NCLB attempted to do with limited success.
Yesterday, I spent the day thinking about the challenge of school improvement with respected state and district superintendents and Pearson’s school improvement team.  We all agreed that high schools pose a particular challenge.  As I’ve said here before; there’s only one thing wrong with struggling high schools—everything: goals, culture, structure, curriculum, instruction, connections, and supports.
The important starting point is a schools and district commitment to the goal of ‘all kids college/career ready’ and working backwards from there to make sure that kids are reading in primary, ready for algebra in 8th grade, taking a college prep sequence in high school, with strong support and guidance (e.g., Nav 101).  Making dramatic improvement in a struggling high school is a difficult multi-year process even with skills outside support.
The optimal solution for cities with concentrated failure is ‘trading good seats for bad seats.’  By closing failing schools and opening good schools, a city can solve the ‘dropout factory’ problem.  New York City is the best example.  However, managing the churn and the matching problem (i.e., opening good seats in roughly the same proportion as bad seats are eliminated) is a huge challenge.  East Baton Rouge is an inadvertent example; under pressure from the state, they closed a struggling school and subsequently approved applications for two innovative high schools with strong college and career connections.
A close/restart strategy solves the churn problem but makes it more difficult for new school developers to get a fresh start.  Green Dot’s Locke High School in Los Angeles is a example of this approach.  With fewer degrees of freedom, MLA Partner Schools is attempting something similar at Manuel Arts.
While attempting to fix or replace dropout factories, cities need to work aggressively to prevent or recover dropouts with high quality alternatives like AdvancePath or Performance Learning Centers.
We can solve this problem, but it will take a full court press including the Department of Education, state chiefs, district superintendents, courageous principals, and capable school developers and improvement partners.   If you want to help, start by reading The Last Dropout, by Bill Milliken, it just might change your life and the lives a few thousand young people.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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