The Efficacy of High School Drop Out Prevention Programs

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In light of the greater demand for a highly skilled, educated workforce, high school dropout rates have never been a greater concern. High school dropout rates impose variant, proximate causes on the economy and cripple the United States’ ability to compete in the world marketplace. Consequently, a whole field of research has been produced in the past two decades to explore the efficacy of various intervention programs. This paper will explore the literature and studies that have been produced in relation to this topic. Specifically, this paper outlines three different types of prevention programs that have been theorized and implemented. Furthermore, this paper outlines the advantages, challenges such as monetary investments, and limitations each of these programs exhibits. Finally, suggestions and applications for school districts will be put forward.

A grossly ignored problem that possesses direct and indirect consequences for all Americans is the increasing, nation wide high school dropout rate. While these rates do not present immediate economic consequences, when these rates are examined as lost opportunity costs, the impact carries crippling residual effects on the economy. Federal and state agencies unanimously agree that resources must be allocated to state and local governments to mitigate the rate at which children dropout of school; however, what is less congruent is the methods and polices that should be implemented to encourage and assist students to remain in school. This paper will outline the predominant theories, policies, and practices that have been debated to address this growing issue. 

Economic Impact and Statistics

The state of California is one that states that reports some of the most disturbing data relative to dropout rates. The California Department of Education (2009) reported that during the 2007-2008 school year the state had a dropout rate of 20.1 percent. As of 2005, almost 25 percent of adults between 18-64 do not possess a high school diploma (Slaughter, 2009). This ratio rises to 33 percent for Hispanics and Blacks. In the aggregate, the United States produces 1.2 million dropouts annually. According to Amos (2008), high school graduation rates in United States indicate a greater need to prepare the future workforce that is heavily populated by minority groups. Amos (2008) further explains that Hispanics have 57.8 percent graduation rate, African Americans have a 55.3 percent graduation rate, and Native Americans have a 50.6 percent graduation rate. These numbers are even more troubling in light of the fact that White students are graduating at a rate of 77 percent (Wise, 2008). Many jobs that only required a high school in the past diploma are now being automated or outsourced to international markets that supply cheap labor. 

As technological innovation continue to increase at a dizzying pace, the demand for individuals with post-secondary and graduate degrees will only continue to increase, compounding the problem related to dropout rates. The Alliance for Excellent Education (2010) argues that reducing these dropout rates could result in significant positive impacts on the national, state, and local economies. 

Some may suggest that the investment into intervention might not present a return on such an investment. However, according to Belfield and Levin (2007), the cost of producing a single high school graduate ranges anywhere from $37,810 to $131,000, while Amos (2008) reports that one single high school dropout ultimately costs the nation $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity. Based on the latest census projection produced by California, if the graduation rates among Hispanics were congruent with those of White students, then Californian would gain an additional $101,596,190,713 in earning and productivity (Meltzer, 2012). Conversely, if no intervention programs are implemented, California can expect to lose $46.4 billion in total income, taxes, and other revenue (Amos 2008). Based of these figures, it seems undeniable that ensuring that students progress to post-secondary and graduate schools will yield positive growth for the national economy on every level. 

Intervention Programs

As previously explained, the consensus among state and federal leaders is that the national dropout epidemic must be addressed. However, competing interests and ideologies retard the progress of this debate. Furthermore, each state department of education is forced to confront a different set of circumstances, which typically call for varied approaches. Given the cacophony of disparate opinions has been difficult to navigate, dozens of studies have examined the efficacy of intervention programs. Methods such as online learning programs, tutoring programs, and attempting to identify the indicators and predictors of a potential dropout have been predominant in the past decade. 

Limitations and Advantages of Intervention Programs

Essential to determining whether of not intervention programs are “worth” funding, or, in other words, determining if these programs justify the funding they need is identifying the factors the lead to high school students dropping out of school. This is important because if factors such as poverty, home life, and external influences lead to a greater amount of dropouts then funneling greater amounts of tax dollars into these intervention programs may ultimately waste vital resources, which, given the instability of the economy, may plunge different states and localities deeper into debt. 

Online Learning Programs

A method that has begun to develop a significant amount of traction in the past decade is credit recovery through online learning programs. These allow students to earn high school credits online at an accelerated rate. These types of programs have reported to increase students’ interest in learning and an overall increase in technological aptitude. In her own study of the viability of these online learning programs, Charil Macaraeg reports, 

In a study conducted by Hoyle and Collier (2006), ten school districts were examined to identify strategies districts used to reduce drop-out rates. They found that while most of the districts referred to punitive measures to prevent dropouts, one particular district offered a way to recover dropouts with a digital school housed in a shopping mall location. The district had so much success with recovering dropouts that they expanded, opening another store-front digital school and making plans to expand to a digital alternative school at each comprehensive high school site (p.14). 

As states such as California have made significant strides in making these programs available to students, the improvement in academic performance has been notable; however, the amount of funding these programs require presents a significant hurdle to maintain the viability of these programs. 

Studies that attempt to perform a cost analysis of these intervention programs thankfully do not face an arduous task of determining if online credit recovery programs are indeed effective. Effectiveness in these studies is simply defined as the increase in a school districts average daily attendance. As federal and state budgets have continued to cut funding to school districts, it has never been more important for administrators to allocate all monies responsibly and pragmatically. In her study, Macaraeg further explains, 

Budgets often did not include cost information on all the ingredients that were used in the intervention, since unpaid resources were sometimes not included in budgets. In addition, resources that had already been paid for or were included on some other agency’s budget were not discernable. Standard budget practices could also distort the true costs of an ingredient (p.14)

Admittedly, as this sort of cost-benefit analysis is performed on individual school districts, it is impossible to generalize any findings or conclusions into a regional or even statewide analysis, little lone nation wide. Nevertheless, studies like Macaraeg do provide critical information for school districts that are interested in adopting online credit recovery programs. 

Most of the studies of the efficacy of these programs have confirmed that they successfully provide at risk and disadvantaged students with opportunities they would not otherwise have. Macaraeg (2012) describes the collaboration between the Simon Youth Foundation and public-school districts. These two groups have combined resources and cooperated with local malls to open up utilize vacant stores as education resource centers (ERC). Macaraeg (2012) relates that “ERCs offered smaller class sizes, with a student to teacher ratio of 15:1, as well as shorter school days that allowed for students with parental and employment responsibilities to still attend school” (p. 21). The availability of these services appears ideal for children who are at risk or otherwise disadvantaged; however, the built-in cost of these programs must be evaluated. 

Funding for public schools depends solely on tax revenues like lottery taxes, property taxes, and public bonds. These revenue steams are typically exhausted to maintain an ordinary public school to cover the costs of maintenance and employee compensation. As a result, funding for a school districts online credit recovery program must come from an alternative source. Macarage relays the following information related to the issue of funding, 

A study conducted by the Bellsouth Foundation (2006) found that states had four primary options for funding virtual schools. These options included state appropriation, a funding formula tied to full time enrollment (FTE), course fees, no state involvement, or a combination of approaches. While these options were available to fund a virtual school, the Bellsouth Foundation found that the costs of virtual schools were dependent on management, instruction, course development, technology set up, and technology set up (Macaraeg 24). 

Macaraeg’s comprehensive study of online credit recovery programs highlights the shortcoming of these programs along with the practical implication for the future. While online credit recovery programs were found to be less cost effective than other types of prevention programs, online programs still managed to be effective as far as assisting students receive high school diplomas and make-up for lost time. Given that these fledgling online programs demand the use of technology that most public-school districts yet have access to, as technology advances and costs contract, the feasibility and cost effectiveness of these programs will be greater while offering greater advantages to children who unable to attend brick and mortar public schools. 

Face-to-Face or Tutoring Prevention Programs

Studies that have attempted to identify the causes that lead high school dropout rates argue that poverty, parental education levels, and parental involvement are usually not reliable indicators of students who are at risk of dropping out of school. Other researchers have found that youth who have stable relationships with deviant peers exhibit a higher risk of dropping out of school. This notion presents troubling implications for prevention programs that attempt to label at risk children as those who have uneducated, uninvolved parents who don't teach their children proper behaviors. However, researchers Piliawsky and Somers (2004) assert that 

To date, the majority of studies on dropout have focused mainly on correlates, predictors, and consequences of high school dropout. Fewer studies have looked at tutoring for the purpose of preventing students from dropping out of school. Indeed, Srebnik and Elias (1993) suggested that drop-out prevention programs often focus too much on students' personal characteristics instead of making school attractive and meaningful to students (p.2). 

The idea that studies often burden themselves with the task of identifying the characteristics that identify youth as at risk carries significant, practical implications for school districts. The factors that correlate to dropout rates are not only merely correlative, but these factors are also extremely subjective and relative to the sample size studied. For example, the common characteristics exhibited by one cohort of dropouts in one region may be completely disparate for another group in another region. Consequently, Piliawsky’s and Somers’ suggestion to focus on making school something children can enjoy and become passionate about transforms the foundational principles of many prevention programs. 

Socialization plays a key role in the success of any tutoring program that is aimed at preventing youth from dropping out of school. Steinberg (2000) suggests that pairing older students with younger, at-risk students produced positive results regarding attendance, academic, performance, and even peripheral goals like self-esteem and attitude toward school. This approach synthesizes the goals of meeting the needs of students to receive an education and find acceptance. Students seemed to regard one-on-one tutoring programs partly as a social activity, a refuge where they could be with friends, safe from the competing distractions of street life or from having to take care of siblings. In short, even though some students may have attended the tutoring sessions more to be with friends than to learn, in the process, it seems they developed a greater commitment to school. 

The studies that have examined the efficacy of these tutoring programs define effectiveness congruently with online credit recovery programs, overall daily average attendance. Although, these after school tutoring programs do not impose the same monetary burden that these online programs do, which should be considered as administrators and officials look for preventions programs to adopt. In a study conducted by Dynarski and Gleason, (2002) they attempted to examine the success of these tutoring programs at separate grade levels. Their study indicated that the success of tutoring programs varied from grade level to grade level.  

The most salient result of this intervention program was that the dropout rate in tenth grade was lower for the group who participated in the program, compared to both the entire ninth grade in their school and school district. It may be that the tutoring program helped students to be more committed to staying in school, as well as to take greater personal pride in themselves (p.16). 

The results of this study also admittedly possess their own limitations, namely the inability to generalize their conclusions across the boundaries of individual school districts. Nevertheless, it can be conclusively claimed that these types of programs do not require the same type of burdening funding that online credit recovery programs necessitate. 

Classroom Instruction and Teacher Accountability

A factor that contributes to that rate at which high school students drop rates and is often ignored within the minutia of the debate is the quality of teacher instruction and accountability for teachers to perform. Riccomini and Bost (2006) both argue that effective is an inconspicuous and often overlooked practice that is excluded from the conversation revolving around dropout prevention programs. Riccomini et al. suggest “effective teaching practices are largely absent from the milieu of interventions and programs employed by schools to address dropout prevention. As such, effective instructional design and delivery as a focus for keeping students … in school appears to be an inconspicuous strategy for dropout prevention” (p.2). While this point highlights a significant factor that contributes to dropout rates, it also overlaps with sensitive issues associated with teachers’ unions and tenure. 

Clearly teachers fight an uphill battle to engage and instill passion into there students. Teachers are one voice in a cacophony of influences that bombard students everyday. Consequently, assigning any sort of blame or constructing accountability mechanisms into the teaching system becomes an ambiguous and convoluted task. However, as previously established, standards and guidelines can function as benchmarks for administrations to examine and take any necessary corrective action. 

What is Effective Teaching?

Although each students approach to learning is contingent on numberless factors, the corpus of 21st century research in into the subject has yielded research-validates methods that stand as foundational principles for effective teaching. Miller (2002) posits, “One of the most important suggestions for teachers to enhance the likelihood that students will succeed academically and socially is to learn about and then implement research-validated instructional practices.” From this perspective, circumstances may dictate adaptation during instruction, but there are foundational teaching strategies that have been found to decrease dropout rates. Effective instructional is critical in assisting students maintain a healthy degree of self-esteem and a positive attitude toward school. Deschler, Schumaker, Lens, Bulgreen, Hockm and Knight (2002) report on the characteristics exhibited by students who choose to dropout, “many of these students also evidence a wide array of academic and social adjustment problems, including high rates of absenteeism, course failure, poor self-esteem, and inappropriate behaviors.” Consequently, teachers can play a significant role in preserving a student’s positive attitude toward education and counteract any outside, detracting influences. 

Effective Teaching Principles

The principles underlying effective teaching are not abstract. These principles have been researched, articulated, and disseminated throughout academia. Ellis, Worthington, and Larkin (1994) established 10 principles that have been successful in engaging students are mitigating the rate at which students dropout of school.  Though this list will be not relayed in its entirety at this juncture, the 10 governing principles of effective instruction are as follows: 1. Active Engagement, 2. Providing the Experience of Success, 3. Content Coverage and Opportunity to Learn, 4. Grouping for Instruction, 5. Scaffold Knowledge, 6. Addressing Forms of Knowledge, 7. Organizing and Activating Knowledge, 8. Teaching Strategically, 9. Making Instruction Explicit, and 10. Teaching sameness. As previously mentioned, these principles will be adapted to facilitate individual circumstance, but the establishment of these standards can function to assist school districts at every level of the administration and faculty to meet the variant needs of the students. 

Propagating and encouraging the implementation of these practices throughout school districts offers several advantages absent from the tutoring program and online credit recovery programs. If individual teachers remained committed and accountable to these practices, then required funding for other tutoring and online programs would be reduced, and additional funding may be made for enriching programs such as STEM. This is not saying that any of these programs are superior to one another, but each has its own advantages and disadvantages. 

Practical Implications for School Districts

The corpus of research associated with high school dropout retention programs is unanimous in its conclusion that the national economy cannot sustain the current national dropout rate. The research revolving around this subject is also limited in it scope. The majority of studies that have been conducted have examined individual school districts, which is necessitated by the inherent limitations of statistical research. Consequently, school districts can examine the past research and literature to gain perspective and find approaches to evaluate or adopt. Given the variant obstacles every locale experiences, each program must be evaluated and implemented within the specific context of that locality.


As the United States continue to compete in the world marketplace, and as developing nations continue to compete in that same marketplace, the demand for a skilled, educated workforce will continue to increase. As a result, the fight to reduce the rate at which students dropout high school has never been more crucial. This effort not only carries idealistic goals related to the intrinsic value of education, but it also bear significant, material implications for the nation’s economy. This is the perspective that school districts must operate from. Furthermore, it behooves each school district to identify the factors in the region that lead to the increase in dropout rates, rather than relying on past literature, which is typically too limited in its scope. Several approaches are currently being continually theorized, researched, and implemented, but online credit recovery programs, tutoring services, and effective teaching model remain at the forefront of predominant intervention programs.


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