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Dropout Solutions That Work

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008 10:08 AM

I am starting this column with a chart, something journalists are never supposed to do. I found it on page 179 of a new book with one of those titles, "The Price We Pay: Economic and Social Consequences of Inadequate Education," that scholars consider necessary but discourages readers. I beg you to stay with me, because this particular chart is surprising and important (I have changed the formatslightly to make it easier to absorb).

Table 9-1. Interventions that Demonstrably Raise the High School Graduation Rate

(Intervention -- Extra high school graduates if intervention is given to 100 students)

¿ 1. Perry Preschool Program (1.8 years of a center-based program for 2.5 hours per weekday, child-teacher ratio of 5:1; home visits; group meetings of parents.) 19 extra graduates.

¿ 2. First Things First (Comprehensive school reform based on small learning communities with dedicated teachers, family advocates and instructional improvement efforts.) 16 extra graduates.

¿ 3. Chicago Child-Parent Center program (Center-based preschool program: parental involvement, outreach and health/nutrition services. Based in public schools.) 11 extra graduates.

¿ 4. Project STAR: class size reduction (4 years of schooling in grades K-3 with class size reduced from 25 to 15.) 11 extra graduates.

¿ 5. Teacher salary increase (10 percent increase, K-12) 5 extra graduates.

This list is the work of Clive R. Belfield of Queens College of the City University of New York and Henry M. Levin of Teachers College at Columbia University, editors of the book and authors of the chapter in which the chart appears. Belfield and Levin are among the best of the economists who are doing some of the most promising research on how to fix schools.

Dropouts are probably the biggest and least soluble problem in high school. About 30 percent of ninth graders don't finish high school in four years nationally. That figure rises to 50 percent in our poorest neighborhoods. Few school systems are doing much about it, in part because there is so little information on what should be done.

Yet the five programs listed in the chart do work, based on solid research, Belfield and Levin say. The bad news is those were the only programs of proven value they could find after examining hundreds of articles and reports. They wanted programs whose results had been rigorously evaluated and had proven to produce significant increases in graduation rates. They found, instead, "few experimental designs with random assignment, few quasi-experimental studies with strong design to ensure equivalent groups for comparison, and few rigorous statistical and econometric methods to identify effects of interventions."

Notice something else: Only one of these five programs is something that high school educators can do, even though they are the people getting most of the blame for our high dropout rates. Some critics say I should not be putting high schools with high dropout rates but superior college preparation programs on my lists of best schools. The chart buttresses my view that the fine educators in those schools deserve a break on this issue, since most of the effective anti-dropout programs start long before students reach high school.

Each of the five solutions identified by Belfield and Levin is interesting. All should be on the top of every presidential candidate's agenda, and indeed many of them are, at least in a general way. The first and third most effective methods are preschool programs, something many candidates support. The Perry Preschool Program began in Michigan 40 years ago. It has the rare advantage of data on its participants' subsequent lives that extends to the present day. The Chicago Child-Parent Center program had a similar long-term focus, following its participants up to age 20.

Some presidential candidates also support reducing class size, which is what Project STAR in Tennessee, the fourth-ranked program, did. Some candidates call for raising teacher salaries, the effects of which were revealed by the fifth-ranked study, by Susanna Loeb and Marianne E. Page.

But the one effective high school program, breaking dysfunctional urban schools into small learning communities, is not discussed very often on the campaign trail. That program, First Things First, was carried out in Kansas City, Kan. It was part of a national switch to smaller high schools that is drawing a great deal of support, including millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Belfield and Levin spend much of their chapter calculating which of the five methods was most cost effective. First Things First won that race, with benefits 3.54 times greater than its cost. Next in line were the Chicago Parent-Child Centers (benefits 3.09 times greater than costs), the teacher salary increase (2.55) , the Perry Preschool Program (2.31) and the class size reduction (1.46).

These are the estimates of two economists crunching their numbers on computers, not the real life experience of teachers, parents, students and taxpayers taking these ideas and using them in their own communities. Their situations are likely to be different from those of the schools covered in these studies. Belfield and Levin point out that there may be other good programs that reduce dropouts, but the research on them is not good enough yet. This is a start. Where we go next depends on how serious we are about solving one of our worst social problems.

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