Moneyball for Dropout Prevention

By John Bridgeland and Robert Balfanz

For decades, more than one million students dropped out from high school every year, with dire consequences to them, society and the economy.  If the moral imperative to help reverse these trends is not enough, consider that the 6.7 million 16-24 year olds who are disconnected from school and employment cost taxpayers $93 billion every year in lost revenues and increased social services.

More than a decade ago, efforts began to emerge to get better data on who these students are, where they go to school, and why they dropped out.  Fact-finding led to eye-opening journeys.

New research showed that 50 percent of high school dropouts were found in just 15 percent of high schools, enabling the country and states to take a more targeted approach.  A first-ever national sample of dropouts across 25 cities, suburbs, and rural areas showed that most could have graduated, the specific barriers that stood in their way, and clear solutions to keep them on track, notwithstanding school and life challenges.

All 50 governors agreed to a common calculation of graduation rates, after states and the federal government had been over-estimating graduation rates for years and making optimistic guesses about what happened to transfer students. Report after report showed that graduation rates were much worse than states or the nation wanted to imagine – as low as 30 and 40 percent in some places and at around 70 percent nationally.  The commitments of three U.S. presidents to raise graduation rates to 90 percent had been made in a context of bad data.

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