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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to End the Dropout Crisis: Ten Strategies for Student Retention

Proven tactics for keeping kids engaged and in school, all the way through high school graduation.
By Roberta Furger
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Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

Are you sitting down? Each year, more than a million kids will leave school without earning a high school diploma -- that's approximately 7,000 students every day of the academic year. Without that diploma, they'll be more likely to head down a path that leads to lower-paying jobs, poorer health, and the possible continuation of a cycle of poverty that creates immense challenges for families, neighborhoods, and communities.

For some students, dropping out is the culmination of years of academic hurdles, missteps, and wrong turns. For others, the decision to drop out is a response to conflicting life pressures -- the need to help support their family financially or the demands of caring for siblings or their own child. Dropping out is sometimes about students being bored and seeing no connection between academic life and "real" life. It's about young people feeling disconnected from their peers and from teachers and other adults at school. And it's about schools and communities having too few resources to meet the complex emotional and academic needs of their most vulnerable youth.

Although the reasons for dropping out vary, the consequences of the decision are remarkably similar. Over a lifetime, dropouts typically earn less, suffer from poorer health as adults, and are more likely to wind up in jail than their diploma-earning peers. An August 2007 report by the California Dropout Research Project (PDF) detailed the economic and social impacts of failing to finish high school in the Golden State. The numbers cited in the report are sobering: High school graduates earn an average of nearly $290,000 more than dropouts over their lifetime, and they are 68 percent less apt to rely on public assistance. The link between dropout rates and crime is also well documented, and the report's data indicates that high school graduation reduces violent crime by 20 percent. And nationally, the economic impact is clear: A 2011 analysis by the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that by halving the 2010 national dropout rate, for example (an estimated 1.3 million students that year), "new" graduates would likely earn a collective $7.6 billion more in an average year than they would without a high school diploma.

Mounting research on the causes and consequences of dropping out, coupled with more accurate reporting on the extent of the crisis, has led to increased public focus on what's been called the silent epidemic. And with that focus comes the possibility of more action at the local, state, and national levels to implement a mix of reforms that will support all students through high school graduation. Such reforms include early identification of and support for struggling students, more relevant and engaging courses, and structural and scheduling changes to the typical school day.

Decades of research and pockets of success point to measures that work. Here are ten strategies that can help reduce the dropout rate in your school or community. We begin with steps to connect students and parents to school and then address structural, programmatic, and funding changes:

1. Engage and Partner with Parents

It's an all-too-familiar story: Parent involvement declines as students get older and become more independent. But although the role of parents changes in secondary school, their ongoing engagement -- from regular communication with school staff to familiarity with their child's schedule, courses, and progress toward graduation -- remains central to students' success. Findings in a March 2006 report, "The Silent Epidemic," illustrate the importance of engaged parents throughout secondary school. Sixty-eight percent of the high school dropouts who participated in the study said their parents became involved in their education only after realizing their student was contemplating dropping out of school.

In Sacramento, California, high school staff members make appointments with parents for voluntary home visits, to keep parents engaged with their children's progress. This strategy -- which has so far been replicated nationally in eleven states, plus the District of Columbia -- includes placing as many visits as possible during summer and fall to parents of teens entering high school -- a critical transition point for many students -- to begin building a net of support and to connect parents to the new school. Staffers also conduct summer, fall, and spring home visits between and during the sophomore and junior years to students who are at risk of not graduating because of deficiencies in course credits, the possibility of failing the state high school exit exam (a condition of graduation), or poor grades. Visits in the summer after junior year and fall of senior year are to ensure that students are on track for either career or college. Early evaluations of the program by Paul Tuss of Sacramento County Office of Education's Center for Student Assessment and Program Accountability found that students who received a home visit were considerably more likely to be successful in their exit exam intervention and academic-support classes and pass the English portion of the exit exam. A follow-up evaluation of the initial cohort of students at Luther Burbank High School showed that the students both passed the exit exam and graduated high school at significantly higher rates. (Visit the website of the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project.)

2. Cultivate Relationships

A concerned teacher or trusted adult can make the difference between a student's staying in school or dropping out. That's why secondary schools around the country are implementing advisories -- small groups of students that come together with a faculty member to create an in-school family of sorts. These advisories, which meet during the school day, provide a structured way of enabling those supporting relationships to grow and thrive. The most effective advisories meet regularly, stay together for several years, and involve staff development that helps teachers support the academic, social, and emotional needs of their students. In Texas, the Austin Independent School District began incorporating advisories into all of its high schools in 2007/2008 to ensure that all students had at least one adult in their school life who knew them well, to build community by creating stronger bonds across social groups, to teach important life skills, and to establish a forum for academic advisement and college and career coaching. (Download a PDF summary of the results of a 2010 survey about Austin's advisory program.)

3. Pay Attention to Warning Signs

Project U-Turn, a collaboration among foundations, parents, young people, and youth-serving organizations such as the school district and city agencies in Philadelphia, grew out of research that analyzed a variety of data sources in order to develop a clear picture of the nature of Philadelphia's dropout problem, get a deeper understanding of which students were most likely to drop out, and identify the early-warning signs that should alert teachers, school staff, and parents to the need for interventions. After looking at data spanning some five years, researchers were able to see predictors of students who were most at risk of not graduating.

Key indicators among eighth graders were a failing final grade in English or math and being absent for more than 20 percent of school days. Among ninth graders, poor attendance (defined as attending classes less than 70% of the time), earning fewer than two credits during 9th grade, and/or not being promoted to 10th grade on time were all factors that put students at significantly higher risk of not graduating, and were key predictors of dropping out. Armed with this information, staff members at the school district, city, and partner organizations have been developing strategies and practices that give both dropouts and at-risk students a web of increased support and services, including providing dropout-prevention specialists in several high schools, establishing accelerated-learning programs for older students who are behind on credits, and implementing reading programs for older students whose skills are well below grade level.

4. Make Learning Relevant

Boredom and disengagement are two key reasons students stop attending class and wind up dropping out of school. In "The Silent Epidemic," 47 percent of dropouts said a major reason for leaving school was that their classes were not interesting. Instruction that takes students into the broader community provides opportunities for all students -- especially experiential learners -- to connect to academics in a deeper, more powerful way.

For example, at Big Picture Learning schools throughout the country, internships in local businesses and nonprofit organizations are integrated into the regular school week. Students work with teacher advisers to find out more about what interests them and to research and locate internships; then on-the-job mentors work with students and school faculty to design programs that build connections between work life and academics. Nationwide, Big Picture schools have an on-time graduation rate of 90 percent. Watch an Edutopia video about Big Picture Schools.

5. Raise the Academic Bar

Increased rigor doesn't have to mean increased dropout rates. Higher expectations and more challenging curriculum, coupled with the support students need to be successful, have proven to be an effective strategy not only for increasing graduation rates, but also for preparing students to graduate from high school with options. In San Jose, California, the San Jose Unified School District implemented a college-preparatory curriculum for all students in 1998. Contrary to the concerns of early skeptics, the more rigorous workload didn't cause graduation rates to plummet. Recent data shows that the SJUSD has a four-year dropout rate of just 11.4 percent, compared with a statewide average of 18.2 percent.

6. Think Small

For too many students, large comprehensive high schools are a place to get lost rather than to thrive. That's why districts throughout the country are working to personalize learning by creating small schools or reorganizing large schools into small learning communities, as part of their strategy for reducing the dropout rate. A 2010 MDRC report funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation looked at the 123 "small schools of choice," or SSCs, that have opened in New York City since 2002. The report showed higher graduation rates at the new schools compared with their much larger predecessors. By the end of their first year in high school, 58.5 percent of students enrolled in SSCs were on track to graduate, compared with 48.5 percent of their peers in other schools, and by the fourth year, graduation rates increased by 6.8 percentage points.

7. Rethink Schedules

For some students, the demands of a job or family responsibilities make it impossible to attend school during the traditional bell schedule. Forward-thinking districts recognize the need to come up with alternatives. Liberty High School, a Houston public charter school serving recent immigrants, offers weekend and evening classes, providing students with flexible scheduling that enables them to work or handle other responsibilities while still attending school. Similarly, in Las Vegas, students at Cowan Sunset Southeast High School's campus can attend classes in the late afternoon and early evening to accommodate work schedules, and they may be eligible for child care, which is offered on a limited basis to help young parents continue their education. Watch an Edutopia video about Cowan Sunset High School.

8. Develop a Community Plan

In its May 2007 report "What Your Community Can Do to End Its Drop-Out Crisis," the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University advocates development of a community-based strategy to combat the problem. Author Robert Balfanz describes three key elements of a community-driven plan: First is knowledge -- understanding the scope of the problem as well as current programs, practices, and resources targeted at addressing it. Second is strategy -- development of what Balfanz describes as a "dropout prevention, intervention, and recovery plan" that focuses community resources. Last is ongoing assessment -- regular evaluation and improvement of practices to ensure that community initiatives are having the desired effect.

9. Invest in Preschool

In their August 2007 report "The Return on Investment for Improving California's High School Graduation Rate" (PDF), Clive R. Belfield and Henry M. Levin review both evidential and promising research as well as economically beneficial interventions for addressing the dropout crisis. Preschool, they argue, is an early investment in youth that yields significant economic results later on. In their review of the research on preschool models in California and elsewhere, the authors found that one preschool program increased high school graduation rates by 11 percent, and another by 19 percent. A 2011 article published in Science by researchers who followed participants in Chicago's early childhood education program Child-Parent Center for 25 years found, among other results, that by age 28, the group that began preschool at age three or four had higher educational levels and incomes, and lower substance abuse problems.

10. Adopt a Student-Centered Funding Model

Research shows that it costs more to educate some students, including students living in poverty, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. Recognizing this need, some districts have adopted a student-centered funding model, which adjusts the funding amount based on the demographics of individual students and schools, and more closely aligns funding to their unique needs. Flexible funding enables schools with more challenging populations to gain access to more resources so they can take needed steps such as reducing class size, hiring more experienced and effective teachers, and implementing other programs and services to support students with greater needs.

Although switching to this funding model does require an infusion of new dollars -- to support the added costs associated with educating certain groups of students without reducing funds to schools with smaller at-risk populations -- many districts have already explored or are using this option, including districts in Denver, New York City, Oakland and San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Seattle, Baltimore, Hartford, Cincinnati, and the state of Hawaii, which has only one school district.

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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Jay Linthicum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many of these dropouts are smarter than you think . . . and actually smarter than we are. They realize, by instinct, not by deduction or analysis, that school is not offering them what they need. In modern American education, from kindergarten to high-school, the message is, and the curriculum provided is, college prep, college prep, college prep.

Let's assume we created three miracles this year. The first miracle being that all of the high school seniors, every one of them, in all high schools across this country, graduate from high school this year. Let's improve that miracle by having them not only all graduate, but all graduate with honors . . . supremely qualified for college. For the first time in history kids listened to their parents and to society and followed their advice and counsel. All of them. Not a one of them failed to supremely qualify for college.

The second miracle we will have to create is a college desk for all those high school grads who did what they were told, for all those twelve years in school, and got ready for college. Not only a college desk for all those kids, but somehow we came up with all the classrooms required for those college desks, plus all the necessary teachers, copy machines, janitors, and everything else that would be needed for this college education for all these people. (The greatest miracle of all would be providing the money to accomplish all this.) And, if that is what we told the students to do, to get ready for college, and they worked hard to do it, shouldn't they expect to find a college desk available to them? After all those years of hard work and preparing for nothing else, because we told them that is what they should do and that is all we provided an education for, shouldn't they expect not to be turned away from college? Shouldn't they expect that college desk to be waiting for them?

Then we create another miracle, all of these kids graduate from college. Not only do they just graduate, they graduate with honors. So now, here they are, eminent college grads with their sheepskins in hand ready for their first jobs. Ready to start their careers. Ready to take their place in the workforce . . and the realities of the workforce says . . . "We really don't need so many college degrees. You folk are over qualified and miss trained for the jobs we need done! You wasted your time. Here you are ready to start your lives and your families and you are going to have to retrain, probably on the job, for careers and jobs that society requires it's population perform!" The reality is that only about twenty percent of the workforce, perhaps thirty percent if one really wants to stretch things, requires a college degree. Why should a kid stay in high school when he knows, by instinct, this it has little relation to his destiny? And shouldn;t high-school provide education for all of us, not just those that are going on to college.

I would also suggest that,in light of the growing awareness of human temperament, learning styles, etc., that in helping kids determine their destinies in life it might be more appropriate to assess first a person's interest and passions, secondly their abilities, and thirdly fix this all into position by the needs of the community. Not the opposite as is our society's customary practice. "You are very bright and do well in Science and Math! You should be come a doctor or an Engineer!" Just because kid is good at academics doesn't mean he shouldn't become a piano maker if that is what he thinks he wants to be. A keen mind making pianos will give us better pianos! Just because a kid has a quick mind does not mean he should go to college . . . and all those not going to college need good access to good eduation for thier (and society's) needs.

Mark Ford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Articles like this one ignore a simple truth. Some kids should drop out of high school. A 16-year-old may lack the maturity or experience to understand how important high school is, but he or she has a firm grasp on a simple truth which eludes many well intentioned adults.

Kids don't have to work and there's nothing educators can do to make them.

This is really about a group we don't hear about too often - "the other 95%". You see for every student who refuses to do anything more than walk through the front door in the morning, every minute a teacher spends with that kid is a moment taken away from the students who really want to be there. If a math teacher is busy checking up on how long a troublesome kid has been in the bathroom, I have to believe that teacher isn't really thinking much about the homework assignment from last night.

Clearly there are students who sit right on the edge and many of the interventions in this article are appropriate for those students. But we also need to accept that sooner or later parents are going to catch on to what schools are doing.

We are condemning our "average" students to a life of mediocrity just to get the drop out rates down. It's time to stop throwing away the many students who want to be in school for the few who don't.

Bob Stern's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Subject: School in 1895 - final exam

This was when the children were expected to listen and be respectful and the teachers were expected to teach! Both benefited more than they do now. Now everyone is more worried about the civil (etc.) rights of the child instead of what they are learning in the classroom! Good lord, what have we done to our class rooms other than make them "prettier!" Wow!

Remember when our grandparents, great-grandparents, and such stated that they only had an 8th grade education? Well, check this out. - - - This is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 in Salina , KS , USA . It was taken from the original document on file at the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina , KS , and reprinted by the Salina Journal.


Grammar (Time, one hour)
1. Give nine rules for the use of Capital Letters.
2 . Name the Parts of Speech and define those that have no Modifications. 3. Define Verse, Stanza and Paragraph.
4. What are the Principal Parts of a verb? Give Principal Parts of lie, lay and run
5. Define Case, Illustrate each Case.
6. What is Punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of Punctuation.
7. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Arithmetic (Time, 1.25 hours)
1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1050lbs. for tare?
4. District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Fi nd the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent..
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per meter?
8 Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance around which is 640 rods?
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)
1. Give the epochs into which U. S. History is divided.
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus .
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States .
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas .
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton , Bell , Lincoln , Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

Orthography (Time, one hour)
1. What is meant by the following: Alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication?
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3.. What are the following, and give examples of each: Trigraph, sub vocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals?
4. Give four substitutes for caret 'u'.
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final 'e.' Name two
exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: bi, dis, mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono, sup
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences: cite, site, sight, fane,
fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

Geography (Time, one hour)
1. What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas ?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of North America .
5.. Name and describe the following: Monrovia , Odessa , Denver ,
Manitoba , Hecla , Yukon , St. Helena , Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall &Orinoco.
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
7. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

Also notice that the exam took five hours to complete.
Gives the saying "she/he only had an 8th grade education" a whole new meaning, doesn't it?
What happened to us? It is kind of humbling, isn't it ?

Catherine Kurkjian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to "A lot of you sound very ..." submitted by Shnazz Patel:

I can understand how frustrating it must be when a parent doesn't care, but what about when the teacher doesn't care whether a student passes or fails. What is an involved/concerned parent to do when a teacher does not call home and instead lets a student fail by not informing the parent of missing assignments? A concerned parent is told by school administration that the only required communication from the teacher is at mid and end term and the parent is asked to access on-line grades. To obtain information in regards to the status of a student's work, it is the parent that is required to e-mail the teacher. Teacher's are encouraged, but are no longer required, to contact a parent even if a student is at risk of failing. What is a parent to do when a teacher does not provide the necessary information in order for the parent to help their child pass or when a parent checks on-line grades to see that your child has a test/quiz grade of 92 but has a 67 in the class because of missing assignments, despite requests to be kept informed?

Catherine Kurkjian
Needham High School
Needham, MA

Erin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This post seems to assume that there are students who want to fail and that they deserve it. This couldn't be further from the truth. Students fail in schools because schools are failing to meet them where they are. To suggest that we should fail students just because they do not fit into our box of what we believe they should do is a tragedy. Differentiating and challenging all students is our job. We shouldn't ever give up on finding ways to engage students, to help them fight life's adversities and intervening when the begin to fail. Not only is it our job, it is a moral imperative.

Ed Techie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I couldn't have said it better myself. The smart kids are put on the back burner for a few kids who don't want to complete the work all to pass a standardized test. No one ever thinks about what the average and smart kids are missing out on learning because we have to make sure that "whatever it takes" every child will pass. Heaven forbid a child be held back if they aren't ready for the next grade. We tell students and parents that the kids won't continue on the next grade if they don't pass, but that's not true they move one anyway regardless of what the teacher thinks. If you even try to bring up any of these points to school officials you'd better run for cover. What even happened to ALL students getting a fair education not just the low students???

Bill Betzen's picture
Bill Betzen
Retired computer teacher, Dallas, Texas, with dropout prevention hobby.

The Dropout Prevention Two Step:

The first step is to know dropout rates. An annually updated 10+ year enrollment by grade spreadsheet on every school and school district web site would do that, with graduation numbers included. From this spreadsheet a minimum of four separate dropout rate measurements can be calculated to show the current dropout situation. Then use this spreadsheet to track progress under step 2.

The second step is to bolt a 500-pound gun vault to the floor in every secondary school lobby to function as a 10-year time-capsule. Each new class will write letters to themselves for the vault as they enter the school. They write about their life history and their plans for the future. Then, as they plan to graduate from that school, they receive back the initial letter and rewrite it with a clearer focus on their future in 10 years. They plan for a 10-year class reunion which will include speaking to then current students in the school about their recommendations for success. They are warned to prepare for questions from the decade younger students such as What would you do differently if you were 13 again?

The first School Archive Project started in 2005 in a Dallas middle school with an 8th grade class that was the Graduation Class of 2009. Both high schools who received these students had the largest 12th grade class ever with their Class of 2009! Dropout rates are going down! Students are making it past that critical 9th grade! 11th and 12th grade enrollments in the 32 high schools in Dallas ISD are the highest on record! They are up 5% since 2005/2006. This is in spite of total district enrollment going down 2.5% during the same time. However 55% of this gain is from only two of the 32 high schools in the district, the two who received over 90% of all School Archive Project students!

Focusing students onto their own futures, in as realistic a fashion as is possible, makes a very big difference! See for details on this project costing less than $2 per 8th grade student to run.

Tony McMurray's picture

I would like to get your thoughs on the idea of motivating students to learn. Do you think that an student inspired to learn is the key?

N Chana's picture
N Chana
Parent of 1 child in Maidston, ON


Smaller class sizes - through out the education process.
More schools.


Parents themselves need to be more involved.
Teachers themselves should become more proactive with the students parents. Create a dialogue.

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

I feel we are missing out on something big due to our false genetic models. I feel there are complex things working together to create many problems for students who are less supported and experience more hardships from an early age onward.
1. We need to redefine our average stress as layers of mental work children and adults carry with us that takes away real mental energy from learning and forcing us to work harder to receive mental reward for mental work expended. This shows just how our individual environments create many hardships to learning and motivation in school. This is contrary to the, I believe misrepresentation of average stress as something that only occurs during some more immediate situation and complicated more by confusing it with some even physical work.
We need to help students "and teachers" see how our individual environments "and not genetics" greatly affect thinking, learning, motivation, and mental health. We need to begin first, removing the myth of genetics. By redefining average stress as layers of mental work, we can then help students learn how to approach their lives more delicately to more permanently reduce those layers of mental work to continually change and improve their lives. Also a problem with higher average stress is the improper pace or wrong dynamics in approaching mental work usually created from higher average stress. This is a second variable/tool that is not taught and is very wrongly taught by teachers who are continually admonishing students to try very hard.
It is such cognitive tools such as these along with the hope of making changes over time that will enable more hope and esteem for students even in the most deprived environments.
1. We desperately need to show all students how their individual environments greatly affect learning and motivation and not genetics for the hopes and esteem for those students and also to provide more respect from all students and adults, despite their environments.
2. We need to help students understand how it may require time to redevelop some skills not created in earlier years due to environmental differences in their lives. We need to provide those students with those longer-term hopes for change in the future.
3. We need to also help as shown in my article on the Male Crisis, how the more aggressive treatment given boys from one year of age onward is hurting their thinking, learning, motivation, and mental health. We need to stop this before we create what appears to be a growing insurmountable problem in the future for society.

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