Special Report: Fighting the Dropout Crisis

Kyle Kennedy

Richard Lee Colvin, Betsy Hammond, Dale Mezzacappa, Sarah Garland, and Thomas Toch
Washington Monthly
July/August 2010

This six-article set takes an honest look at the dropout problem through the lens of Obama's pledge to boost graduation numbers. What techniques are employed by three cities that have worked hard on this front in recent years (New York, Philadelphia, and Portland)? Can this problem be solved? Richard Lee Colvin is bullish in his overview but acknowledges that "good intentions and effort are no guarantee of success." All three cities tried similar strategies - working to fix their big "dropout factory" high schools and creating "alternative pathways" - and all three benefited from private financial support. Yet their results varied dramatically, with big improvements seen in New York, moderate success in Philly, and practically none in Portland. The difference, concludes Colvin, was "leadership and attitude." New York took a relentless, data-driven approach, which proved startlingly more effective than Portland's lack of accountability or focus. What might this mean for federal dollars? Colvin again: The government should spend fewer dollars on turning around failing schools, which is exceptionally hard to do, and instead open up new, small, accountable ones, as NYC did. Toch elaborates with the details of the recent MDRC NYC report (reviewed last week) on that city's new schools efforts. This collection is an articulate explanation of how achievement levels and graduation rates can rise together. Read it here.

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