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Obama pledges $900 million more to stem ‘dropout crisis’

The sort of controversial school turnaround strategy employed in Rhode Island last week, in which the entire staff of a poorly performing school was fired, may get more common.

The sort of controversial school turnaround strategy employed in Rhode Island last week, in which the entire staff of a poorly performing school was fired, may get more common.

President Obama reiterated his commitment to such approaches in a speech Monday morning highlighting the dropout crisis.

“In this kind of knowledge economy, giving up on your education and dropping out of school means not only giving up on your future, but it’s also giving up on your family’s future and giving up on your country’s future. And yet, that’s what too many of America’s children are doing today,” Obama said at an event organized by the America’s Promise Alliance, an organization founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma.

Obama cited statistics that nearly 1 in 3 high-schoolers don’t graduate each year, and noted that just 12 percent of schools produce about 50 percent of America’s dropouts – the reason, he says, that he wants to focus attention and resources on the poorest-performing schools, and employ drastic turnaround measures. (For Monitor coverage of the Rhode Island school decision, click here.)

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Obama has pledged to add $900 million in his 2011 budget to the $3.5 billion he earmarked for school-improvement funds last year, as part of the stimulus package. Under those guidelines, schools and districts could adopt one of four strategies to qualify for the funds:

  • A turnaround, in which the principal and least half the staff are replaced, and a new instructional program is adopted.
  • A school closure, in which students are enrolled in other, better-performing schools in the district.
  • A “restart,” in which the school is reopened as a charter school or under the management of another educational group.
  • A school “transformation,” in which the school takes significant steps to improve itself by addressing curricula, structure, governance, and teacher education.

“Too often, we find that schools try to chip away at the problem,” says Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education. “But when you’re facing a graduation rate below 60 percent, or your school is scoring in the lowest 5 percent of the state test scores, you need to make dramatic changes.”

Still, some educators note that there is no research proving the effectiveness of these approaches.

One recent study, by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, examined the effects on students of closing 18 elementary schools – the strategy on which the Obama administration’s “closure” option is based – and found that a majority of students were sent to schools that were just as low-performing.

“The problem with [the administration’s emphasis on turnaround strategies] is that there is no evidence on what works in turning around low-performing schools. So they’re placing a large bet on an unproven approach,” says Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy. “There’s an intuition here – that we all share – that if you can get rid of the worst schools and put into their place better schools, that’s good. But we don’t know how to do that.”

Mr. Whitehurst says he believes the administration could better allocate resources by putting them toward more proven dropout-prevention strategies.

In addition to touting turnaround strategies, Mr. Obama stressed the importance of other, less drastic measures to prevent dropouts, including identifying and supporting students at risk of dropping out; offering accelerated curricula to help those who have fallen behind catch up; offering good alternative schools help drop-outs return to school; and developing innovative schools like “early college high schools” that allow students to earn college credits before graduating. (For a report card on which states have the most innovative schools, click here.)

Such broader approaches – often involving the community as well as schools – are the focus of the America’s Promise Alliance new Grad Nation initiative, a continuation of the Alliance’s earlier dropout-prevention work, which has a goal of ensuring that 90 percent of today’s fourth-graders graduate high school on time.

The Alliance has been hosting summits around the country to focus communities on the dropout issue, and works with a variety of partners – including groups like City Year and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America – who are helping to address the problem.

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“The schools can be a hub of this, but it’s about much more than just what happens inside the classroom,” says Colleen Wilber, a spokeswoman for the Alliance. “We need partners on the community level.”