Information For:

Give back to HGSE and support the next generation of passionate educators and innovative leaders.

News & Events

Dropouts Concentrated in 35 Cities,While Federal Data on Dropouts Underestimates Problem

New Studies Shed Light on Dropout Crisis

The nation's dropout problem is most severe in a few hundred schools in the 35 largest cities in the U.S., where nearly half of schools graduate less than 50% of their freshman class, according to a new study presented at a national conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on January 13, 2001. New research also revealed that federally reported data on dropouts is inaccurate and underestimates the dropout problem nationally, particularly among minority students.

The studies were among fourteen commissioned by Achieve, Inc. and The Civil Rights Project at Harvard Universityto examine current methods of data collection and generate fresh estimates on dropout and graduation rates. Research on effective interventions--such as restructuring the ninth grade to ease the transition into high school and creating small schools--was also presented at the conference, "Dropouts in America: How severe is the problem? What do we know about intervention and prevention?"

"As states impose new standards and high-stakes tests for graduation and promotion, some predict that our dropout problem will only get more dire," says Robert Schwartz, president of Achieve, Inc. "Our challenge is to raise academic standards for all students, while simultaneously ensuring that at-risk students receive the supports they need to meet the standards and stay in school."

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, underscored the need for effective interventions designed to keep students in schools. "Dropping out of school is a slow-motion dive for most kids and we can see them approaching the edge long before they fall off," says Orfield. "Targeting kids in the ninth grade, when they are most vulnerable to dropping out, is one effective way to curb the problem."

Statistics Underestimate Dropout Numbers

Dropouts Concentrated in 35 Largest Cities The nation's dropout problem is most desperate in between 200 to 300 schools in the 35 largest cities in the U.S. The cities are Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, San Antonio, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, Austin, Columbus, Milwaukee, Denver, Kansas City, Nashville, Memphis, El Paso, Oklahoma City, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, San Diego, Washington D.C., Long Beach, Phoenix, San Jose, Seattle, Tucson, Virginia Beach, New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Charlotte.

Researchers Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters (Johns Hopkins University) found that, in half of the high schools sampled, 50% or fewer of the students who enrolled in ninth grade are graduated in twelfth grade. Researchers also found that in schools with more than 900 students and in which 90% or more of the students are non-white, the school's rates of promoting students from 9th through the 12th grades are the lowest.

Federally-Reported Data Underestimates Minority Dropouts Current practices of data collection on dropouts are woefully inaccurate, with major discrepancies in data reported by local, state, and federal education agencies. Researcher Phil Kaufman (MPR Associates) found that because of different methods of data collection and target populations, data from the Bureau of Census's Current Population Survey (CPS), National Center for Education Statistics's Longitudinal Studies Program (NELS), and National Center for Education Statistics's Common Core of Data (CCD) yield different estimates on the number of students who drop out and complete high school.

Researchers also found that underrepresentation of minority students in data sampling leads to large-scale bias in NELS and CCD and underestimates minority dropout levels.

Fifty Percent of Philadelphia Freshman Kept Back Nearly 50% of the first-time freshmen in Philadelphia are not promoted to tenth grade, due in part to inadequate reading and math skills, but also to a lack of school structures and curriculum which would help students make the transition to high school, according to researchers Ruth Curran Neild, Scott Stoner-Eby, and Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania). Being held back is strongly related to eventually dropping out.

Smaller Classes and Economic Factors Curb Dropouts

Successful Intervention Programs Contain Three Common Elements Programs that successfully keep students in school share three components: a smaller organizational structure such as self-contained academies within a school; a core curriculum of high standards combined with opportunities for students to recover from failure without risk of retention; and teacher supports such as professional development by department and scheduled common planning time. Researchers James McPartland and Will Jordan (Johns Hopkins University) found that a comprehensive set of specific changes that addressed these three areas could retain most of the current dropouts and help each student succeed at a high-standards program of study while enjoying school.

School and Class Size Impact Rates of Graduation Students' success in school and graduation is positively related to small school and class size, according to research by Jacqueline Ancess and Suzanna Ort Wichterle (National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, & Teaching). Factors like a performance-based assessment system and the organization of school structure, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development also help students stay in school.

Social and Economic Factors Increase Likelihood of Graduation By analyzing the Census's annual dropout statistics for the past three decades, Robert M. Hauser, Solon J. Simmons, and Devah I. Pager (University of Wisconsin-Madison) found that certain social and economic factors had a continuing positive impact on student graduation. These include higher parent education, two-parent families, home ownership of parents, and living outside central cities. All of the positive factors are less present for blacks and Latinos.

Broad Intervention Programs Fail to Help The majority of the 20 dropout prevention programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education's School Dropout Demonstration Assistance Program (SDDAP), which serves 10,000 students, made little difference in preventing dropping out, according to researcher Mark Dynarski (Mathematica Policy Research Associates). Findings confirm earlier work indicating the difficulty of identifying risk factors that lead to dropout.

Drawing on examples from various sites, Dynarski noted that ongoing, school-based personalized attention from adults may conceivably make more of a difference in stemming dropout rates than broad intervention programs.

Policy Recommendations

Among the recommendations that emerged from these research studies are the following:

  • There is a pressing need to gather more accurate data about how many students are leaving high school without a diploma, what their racial and ethnic backgrounds are, where they live, and what schools they attend.
  • The data collection about dropouts should be carried out by independent organizations with no vested interest in the findings. Schools cannot possibly be objective in obtaining this data about their own institutions.
  • The new Title I legislation and state legislation should contain accountability provisions that include holding school officials responsible for increasing the percentage of students who graduate.
  • Dropout prevention programs should target and track students on an individualized basis. Schools and districts should provide personalized, school-based attention from adults rather than broad intervention programs.
  • School organization, particularly for the largest high schools, should be redesigned. Options include creating smaller units, teams, or environments to enhance student learning.

Complete Studies and Experts Available

The complete set of conference papers can be downloaded from the Civil Rights Project website after 12:01 pm on Saturday, January 13.

The following experts are available for comment and further information:

Contributors to the conference:

  • Robert Balfanz (410-516-4272) and Nettie Legters (410-516-8800), Johns Hopkins University
  • Phil Kaufman (510-849-4942), MPR Associates
  • Ruth Curran Neild (215-898-5195), Scott Stoner-Eby (717-293-8453), and Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. (215-898-1569), University of Pennsylvania
  • James McPartland (410-516-8803) and Will Jordan (410-516-8844), Johns Hopkins University
  • Jacqueline Ancess (212-678-3432), National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, & Teaching, and Suzanna Ort Wichterle (212-475-0522)
  • Robert M. Hauser (608-262-2182), Solon J. Simmons (608-262-2182), and Devah I. Pager (608-263-7958), University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Mark Dynarski (609-799-3535), Mathematica Policy Research Associate

Educational leaders who are knowledgeable about the dropout problem, and who could comment on the significance of these studies:

  • Sarita Brown (202-778-8323), Founding President, Hispanic Scholarship Fund
  • Gary Natriello (212-678-3087), Professor, Teachers College
  • Kent McGuire (202-219-1385), Assistant Secretary, Office of Educational Research, U.S. Department of Education
  • Richard Murnane (617-496-4820), Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education


Achieve, Inc. is a nonprofit organization founded by the nation's governors and corporate leaders to support higher academic standards and accountability systems for schools. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard is a national organization that studies educational opportunity and minority rights; the Project collaborates with civil rights advocacy groups and scholars from universities across the country. Robert Schwartz and Gary Orfield share a long-standing commitment to working with urban schools and to providing accurate data to policymakers. Although they disagree about the role of high-stakes tests, Schwartz and Orfield share a commitment to improving the analysis of the dropout problem and promoting better understanding of effective prevention and intervention strategies. The conference was supported by the Nellie Mae Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.