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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Sad Dad's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are a number of issues NOT addressed in this article.

I divorced my ex-wife over 12 years ago because she was an alcoholic and tried to commit suicide. So, guess who got custody of our son ?.....

She has denied me visitation for this entire time.

I have continued to pay child support this entire time.

My son dropped out of school in Sept of 2006 with a 9th grade education.
He is now 17.

The North Thurston School District in Washington State has refused to allow me to obtain copies of his education transcripts despite my informing them that they are in violation of Federal law (FERPA).
Several years ago, I wrote letters practically begging my son's school to simply send me copies of my son's report cards and a picture every year. They refused.

So, when the courts AND schools force fathers out of the lives of their kids, and simply make fathers a source of income for the state and a mother that CHOOSES to be on welfare when they are more than capable of working, THAT is the source of the problem.

The courts and schools FORCE non-custodial parents OUT of the lives of their children.

I have spent thousands of dollars and many years trying to have a relationship with my son and it has been a complete waste of time and money because the courts and the schools DON'T want creates more jobs when there are more people "dealing with this crisis".....

The simplest solution is to simply mandate JOINT CUSTODY and ELIMINATE the barriers to parental involvement in the lives of their children.

By the way, at age 46, I am back in school to become a Middle School teacher and I am now Phi Theta Kappa on my way to a Master's Degree.....

Moving on with my life now.....

Sad Dad's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am 46 years old and back in school to become a teacher to address the very problems you speak of Charles.
I am now Phi Theta Kappa with a 3.75 but I still can't do Algebra.....
I missed passing the state exam in my last college class by ONE QUESTION....
So, now they want me to pay another $300 for tuition and online course access and sit throught 16 weeks of it stupid is that ?

I'm just lucky that I can read very fast and my comprehension is very good.

I just don't retain math very well.

I am going to be teaching Special Education kids some day so why do I need higher math?

There are many brilliant people that have difficulty in one area and they drop out of high school or never complete college because the "system" won't let them succeed in their areas of strength.
The "system" forces them to fail based on one minor weakness...

We are wasting millions of lives on a "system" that is too rigid and inflexible.
It is truly a waste of human capital to punish people for having an academic weakness when we should be focusing on everyone's academic strengths.

I am now studying Algebra on my own and will eventually pass a placement exam at another school, thus bypassing the ridiculous requirement to retake the entire course.

Sad Dad's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What about the kids from single parent homes ?

Divorce is the number one problem that many kids face.
Single parent homes are fast becoming the norm.

How are you going to have a "strong family" as you put it, when most kids will simply never have one ?

I am a 46 year old man back in college and now Phi Theta Kappa on my way to a Master's to become a Middle School teacher.

The parents are the key to a childs success in school.

I'd love to hear more about the "strong brand" you hope to achieve when
most single parents are now working two jobs to survive and don't have time to be
as involved in their childrens lives as you seem to think they will be....

Many parents are apathetic. As a child progresses through the grades, the parent's decreasing attendence each year at open house night proves that parents are either too busy working a second job, or they are just not that involved in the academic success of their children.

Please elaborate further about how your plan will make a difference.....

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.

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.

Ashley Wright's picture

Thanks! You have made some really good points but I feel that these are not the enough to prevent high school dropouts. What we need is a education system that gives students some freedom, freedom of learning. I would like to raise a point. With so many education stakeholders debating the needs of today's schools, student voices aren't always heard when it comes to what they want from their education. I think what they all need is choice, innovation and technology. Choice to select their courses, some innovative learning methods, interactive technology for writing and learning.

Janel Jeff Warner's picture

I have a child that was diagnosed with autism and aspergers,The school system had him labeled and he had a big X on his back since he started at this school system.His anxiety and depression got so bad that we had to pull him out and had him get his GED.It seems that now days there is more and more bullying going on within teachers than students anymore.Which is sad all because it seems its all due to funding money that the school gets.I guess as the old saying goes money talks BS talks..We just got so tired to see him break down and cry and his self esteem dropped big.Which became a concern for us as parents and figured it was time to be parents and find a solution quick..So I believe in much smaller group settings and good teachers who realy love working with kids of all ages would help alot.

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