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A Dual Dropout Crisis, Part 1 January 2010

A Dual Dropout Crisis, Part 1

By Kenneth R. Howey
Senior Fellow, the Rockefeller Institute of Government

Kenneth R. Howey

Every 26 seconds a student drops out of school in the United States. That’s more than a million students every year — or over 6,800 daily. We have one of the highest dropout rates in the industrialized world.

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Kenneth R. Howey is a senior fellow at the Institute, focusing on urban teacher education and school renewal, as well as community partnerships that promote education from preschool through college. In an upcoming Observation, Howey will examine a second dropout crisis — of teachers — and how it is being addressed. More on this topic can be found in Putting a Stop to Dropouts: Access and Success in Urban Schools: Pre-School through College (2008), which Howey co-edited.

This tragic situation is difficult to overstate. But these startling numbers have not created a sense of urgency nationally or a major coordinated strategy to redress this problem of major proportions.

Would the disappearance of a city of over a million people every year get one’s attention?

A closer look at June 2008 student dropout data from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center reveals that overall, slightly more than 70 percent of all students graduate from high school. For males the success rate is lower, closer to two-thirds (68 percent). The percentage of white students who graduate is somewhat higher (78 percent). However, for students of color the statistics are alarming; only a little more than half will receive a high-school diploma (Native Americans, 51 percent; African-American, 55 percent; and Hispanics, 58.8 percent).

There is also wide variability in graduation rates across states ranging from 83 percent in New Jersey to a lowly 45.4 percent in Nevada. However, even in the states reporting the highest graduation rates, almost one in five students fail to graduate. Further, the data collected by EPERC don’t reveal the full breadth and depth of the problem. The U.S. Department of Education database, which EPERC draws from, doesn’t reflect the alarming number of youngsters who leave school prior to ever enrolling in high school. In addition, there are concerns about the accuracy of methods used in many states to calculate the graduation rates reported to the U.S. Department of Education as they employ a leaver-rate formula that relies heavily on undercounted dropout data. The more rigorous cumulative promotion index employed by EPERC revealed that the majority of states reported graduation rates inflated by at least 10 percent.

Whatever the actual numbers, we have a crisis by any definition — and this crisis is most visible in our nation’s largest cities. Graduating from high school in America’s largest cities essentially amounts to a coin toss. Only about one-half (52 percent) of students in these school systems complete high school with a diploma. In the most extreme cases (Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and Indianapolis), fewer than 35 percent of students graduate with a diploma. Our largest cities collectively account for almost one-fourth (23 percent) of students nationwide who fail to graduate.

The costs to the many thousands of young people who drop out of school are largely inestimable and, while highly personal on the one hand, they ripple out in multiple ways in costs to our larger society as well. These are costs incurred relative to health, welfare, crime and imprisonment.

It is clear then that better strategies are needed to stem the mass exodus of students, especially from many high-poverty urban schools. The Rockefeller Institute, along with State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, is working with a number of urban universities across the country which serve as anchor institutions in evolving communitywide partnerships focused on education from preschool through college. These systemic partnerships are designed to address problems at every stage of the leaking student educational ‘pipeline.’ This means better preparing youngsters to begin school through high-quality preschool. It means working with the families of these youngsters. It means providing more high-quality educational experiences outside of school to supplement those within school. It means not only improved education but providing needed counseling and finding the financial means for those students to pursue post-secondary options. These partnerships employ a range of strategies to address the dropout problem, and their goal is not just high school graduation, but access to and success in a post-secondary program.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.