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6 ways to improve dropout prevention efforts

Bob Darby, a former educator and district superintendent, shares six critical dropout prevention strategies


Educators have reason to celebrate when it comes to dropout prevention. In 2014, the latest National Center for Education Statistics data showed that the U.S. high school graduation rate hit an all-time high of 80 percent and is on target to reach 90 percent by 2020.

Yet, we are still faced with over 3 million young people who exit America’s public high schools each year without graduating.

Typically, the decision to drop out isn’t based on just one factor, but rather several risk factors that result in disengagement from school. Improving dropout prevention efforts means resolving a student’s disengagement as early as possible.

An effective way to do that is to identify and monitor the academic measures and social factors that signal a student is in trouble, so educators can take appropriate action. Over the past five years, I’ve conducted At-Risk Identification workshops for approximately 155 districts and service agencies in 21 states.

From state to state and district to district, the risk factors for dropping out are similar and mirror those demonstrated by leading research organizations. Such factors include absenteeism, reading and/or math assessment scores a full year or more behind grade level, course failure, discipline problems, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, mobility, and homelessness, among others.

Here are six ways districts can use these risk factors to reduce the likelihood that a student will drop out of school:

1.  Early identification

The earlier a problem can be identified and addressed, the greater the impact—particularly for struggling students. Several education experts acknowledge the strong influence of factors experienced before high school. This means that educators do not have to wait until students’ risk factors become so ingrained that the school system has to expend more time, personnel, and funds to resolve the issue. They should strive to identify these risk factors as early as elementary school or even preschool.

(Next page: Five more dropout prevention strategies)

2.  Selection of relevant risk factors

For each student, each risk factor has a specific impact on his or her likelihood of dropping out. While many existing early-warning systems dictate what risk factors should be included, district leaders should have the flexibility to select, de-select, or add risk factors within the context of their specific district. Why? Institutional culture, practices, and resources differ from district to district, and taking these differences into account enables educators to more effectively identify those students at highest risk for dropping out of school.

3.  Customized weighting of risk factors

Further, to measure the impact of each risk factor, districts should have the option to use prescribed weighting built upon a solid research base, or to weight the factors according to their district’s characteristics and resources. For example, personnel from several districts have informed me that if a student is homeless, the weight given to that single factor should be high enough to identify that student as being likely to drop out and therefore designate him or her as a candidate for action.

4.  Tracking prescribed activities and interventions

The best way to reduce or eliminate a risk factor for a student is to implement an action that has worked for other students with a similar set of circumstances. Thus, it is important to track the success of the action assigned, whether it involves behavioral plans, academic interventions, counseling sessions, or anything else. If the solution is not lowering the student’s risk of dropping out, decisions can be made about staying the course, modifying the action, or trying something new. Being able to track even a simple tactic, such as providing in-school breakfasts so students can concentrate in class, is important to building a database of proven solutions. As a result, the next time a student is in a similar situation, educators will immediately know the best solution to implement.

5.  Identifying professional development opportunities

Because educators’ actions are an essential component in turning around a student’s prospects for dropping out, not tying teacher practices to the risk factors is a missed opportunity. Knowing what works under what circumstances and which educators are obtaining positive results from interventions and activities is critical to creating a repository of proven solutions, as well as providing professional support to staffers where needed.

6.  Improving dropout prevention efforts

To reduce the number of dropouts, it is vital to evaluate the whole student—at any age—rather than focusing only on test scores or attendance. This information should follow students from school to school to provide an uninterrupted view of their challenges, any measures taken to address those challenges, and their subsequent progress. With this information, districts can identify and share best practices—and eliminate dropouts once and for all.

Bob Darby is a former educator and district superintendent. He currently serves as vice president of client services for MindShine Technologies:

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