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Michigan uses online learning to reach at-risk students

Online learning can help many groups of students succeed and excel.
Online learning can help many groups of students succeed and excel.

As a struggling high school student in metro Detroit, Kyle Grigg faced a terrible prospect. Last spring, Kyle was asked by his public high school counselor to leave the school because he did not have enough time to make up lost credits and graduate. Kyle knew he didn’t want to be one of the 20,000 students who drop out of Michigan public high schools each year–but he didn’t know what else to do.

When his high school doors closed behind him, Kyle’s lifelong opportunities become severely limited. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average annual income of a dropout is $24,000, which is 60 percent below that of high school graduates. Kyle didn’t want to bus tables for the rest of his life, but finding even a low-skill job in Michigan has become increasingly difficult. Michigan’s 14.3 percent unemployment rate currently leads the nation. With limited earning potential and low chances of gainful employment, it’s not surprising that many dropouts end up in correctional facilities or prison. The New York Times recently reported that, on any given day, a dropout is five times more likely to be incarcerated–with the cost of lifetime incarceration exceeding the cost of public school education by a factor of two or three.

While Kyle’s story is striking, it is hardly unique. By pushing out students who are failing and unlikely to graduate, as well as truants and students with behavior problems, schools can raise their test-score averages and graduation rates while reducing suspensions and dropout rates. Many times, this happens when school systems do not quickly identify and support students who are struggling or exhibiting other early warning signs of dropping out of school, like disengagement and poor attendance.

Michigan’s response

Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan decided to spotlight the troubling dropout numbers across Michigan. He issued a “Dropout Challenge” and began recruiting schools to step up their efforts in identifying youth exhibiting early warning signs of dropping out of school, providing appropriate support, and offering alternative routes for students to graduate. At the same time, the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Jennifer Granholm enacted legislation raising the dropout age to 18 and providing failing high schools with turnaround strategies and supports.

To support participating schools in the Dropout Challenge, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) developed a four-fold strategy of engagement, funded in part by the state’s Title II, Part D, Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) competitive grant program. Our work involves increasing the availability and use of prevention data, strengthening public policy, identifying and disseminating best practices, and sponsoring alternative routes to high school graduation.


The 2005 National Governors Association “Compact on High School Graduation Rates” put a stake in the ground on how public schools would be measured in terms of producing high school graduates. Michigan was one of the first states to adopt the compact’s cohort method of measuring graduation and dropout rates.

Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information produced the first four-year cohort-based graduation report for the class of 2007, finding the statewide dropout rate to be 15.9 percent by actual head count. This meant that out of the 140,044 students enrolled as freshmen in 2004, 21,185 were reported as having dropped out. In 2008, the number decreased to 14.2 percent, or 20,594. Both annual reports provide a breakout of graduation and dropout measures for each of Michigan’s 552 public school districts and 232 public school academies.

These reports marked a heightened level of accountability for public school administrators and gave policy makers the means of identifying those schools producing the fewest graduates and the most dropouts. For a number of reasons, students like Kyle do not show up in state reports until it’s too late. Annual graduation reports serve a broader accountability purpose by identifying dropouts in aggregate and after the fact. These reports lack the granularity needed by district or building-level administrators to tackle their own dropout problems.

The National High School Center published a report in 2007, “Approaches to Dropout Prevention,” that provided a list of early warning signs–poor attendance, not enough credits earned, no progression in grades–that school leaders can use to identify students most at risk of dropping out. These types of indicators exist for every grade, yet Michigan’s state-level data system currently does not collect these indicators, and it only reports off-track students after four years of high school.

Last year, Michigan made a priority of getting actionable dropout prevention data in administrators’ hands by funding the Regional Data Initiatives grant program, allocating $11.5 million in EETT funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The project expands eight existing regional data systems to cover all 57 intermediate school districts. So far, 97.5 percent of public school districts and 45 percent of public school academies have signed up, so now providing dropout prevention reports for every school is well within reach.


As a matter of public policy, many proponents of dropout prevention see the new state law increasing the legal dropout age as a good first step in lowering dropout rates. In December 2009, the Michigan Legislature, challenged to address the state’s unacceptably high dropout numbers, increased the legal dropout age from 16 to 18 as part of a larger package of education reform legislation passed to strengthen the state’s Race to the Top (RTTT) application. Under the new law, parents will have to formally approve of a student’s decision to leave school without graduating before age 18.

Increasing the dropout age was a clear message to at-risk students and their parents, so the Michigan Legislature sent a similar message to our state’s “dropout factories” by including in the RTTT legislation provisions for a state takeover of the bottom five percent of struggling schools. This legislation may put these schools under state control and provides limited choices: use one of the state-mandated options to improve, or close. These options range from replacing administrators and staff, to hiring an outside management company, to reorganizing as a public school academy (i.e., charter school).

In addition to raising the dropout age and taking over failing schools, Michigan is experimenting with cyber school provisions that provide schools with alternative routes and flexible options for re-engaging students who have fallen behind. Superintendent Flanagan has extended “seat time” alternative education waivers to 21 programs across the state, in many cases allowing students to bypass the current, two-course limit on online, self-scheduled courses and receive up to 100 percent of their instruction online. As of September 2009, 1,450 students were enrolled in seat time waivers, and program administrators say about 80 percent of these students were either dropouts or at risk of dropping out.


To lower the dropout rate, more has to be done at the school level to provide the appropriate support for at-risk students. While school administrators might have an idea which students are at risk of dropping out, they often lack the definite indicators warranting intervention. Hence the need for adding early warning signs reporting to local data systems.

Providing data is only part of the solution. Many administrators and teachers have not been properly prepared to understand what the data are saying and to use them in helping at-risk students avoid dropping out. The 2007 “Approaches to Dropout Prevention” report suggests schools that are successful in reversing high dropout rates focus on factors that go beyond what one would consider traditional dropout prevention strategies and actions, such as extending learning time, providing challenging learning opportunities, aligning performance standards with college and career readiness, and focusing on transitions from high school to college or a career.

To help Michigan schools adopt the most promising dropout prevention strategies, MDE partnered with the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals and Oakland County Schools to bring 1,096 middle and high school administrators into an online professional learning community for developing and sustaining best practices.


Fortunately for Kyle, Michigan didn’t stop at just passing legislation, disseminating data, and promulgating best practices. Students need alternative routes for earning a traditional high school diploma, and so MDE started funding EETT competitive grant programs to bring changes in instructional models that would lead to improved opportunities and outcomes for at-risk students.

Kyle now is one of 540 students enrolled in Westwood Community School’s Cyber High School. This is a pilot program, operating under a state superintendent-approved seat time waiver, that employs a constructivist, online learning model patterned after the United Kingdom’s “Not School,” a research-based program designed expressly for re-engaging dropouts. Westwood students enroll full time as “researchers,” and they work with “mentors” and “experts” (i.e., certified and highly qualified teachers) to earn credit towards the Michigan Merit Curriculum graduation requirements by completing cross-curricular projects. Researchers work collaboratively and/or independently at their own speed in this year-round, 24-7 program. In addition to providing instruction that boasts a six-to-one ratio of students to teachers, Westwood provides researchers with computers, broadband connectivity, and access to in-person learning lab sessions.

“I was very skeptical and just immediately thought, ‘Online learning … you mean like college? Well, I’m screwed then. I can’t pass high school, what am I going to do in college?'” says Kyle, who is now 19. “But without this school, I would be at my job where I am now–a bus boy. Now, in my future, I don’t see myself as a bus boy. I see myself as a computer graphic and modeling designer. To do that, I need a college diploma. To do that, I need a high school education.”

With students like Kyle re-engaged, and owning their own academic success, demand is rising. In December, MDE funded a larger EETT competitive grant to expand the program to four other locations around the state, including the most remote regions of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Early success

Michigan’s dropout prevention and re-engagement strategy is starting to work: In the two years Michigan has reported actual graduation and dropout rates, the number of dropouts has dipped by 591 students, or 1.7 percent, even as overall enrollment climbed. Perhaps Michigan is experiencing the “Hawthorne Effect” by merely focusing on the problem, but the decline signals that concerted effort could make even larger and lasting gains by lowering dropout rates, boosting graduation totals and college enrollment, increasing standards of living, and lowering unemployment and incarcerations.

“I’m excited about my future,” says Kyle. “My new high school has given me a second chance [that] many students … have never been given. The school doesn’t feel like a school all the time. … Hopefully graduating is just my first step.”

Bruce Umpstead is the state director of educational technology and data coordination for the Michigan Department of Education. Kyle Grigg is a student at Michigan’s Westwood Cyber High School.

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