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Evidence shows little benefit from state dropout grants

Just 14 of 100 schools show substantially improved dropout, graduation numbers

Contact: Terry Stoops
919-828-3876
tstoops@johnlocke.org

March 24, 2009

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RALEIGH -- Only 14 of the 100 North Carolina schools served by state dropout prevention grant recipients saw substantial improvement in dropout and graduation rates from 2006-07 to 2007-08. Those numbers suggest the grants made little impact, according to a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.

Click here to view and here to listen to Terry Stoops discussing this Spotlight report.

"It's important to know whether these grants offer any benefits, since Gov. Beverly Perdue has set aside $6.7 million for more dropout prevention grants in her plan for the next state budget," said report author Terry Stoops, JLF Education Policy Analyst. "When schools and state agencies face cutbacks, there's no good reason to continue funding a program that doesn't show signs of success."

Stoops' latest report tackles the arguments from "politicians and advocates" who claim that dropout prevention grants have worked, he said. "Because of research limitations, there's no way these proponents can substantiate that claim," Stoops said. "They cannot establish a causal connection between the grant program and changes in the dropout rate. A number of grant recipient schools had lower dropout rates, but there is no evidence the grants themselves were the primary cause for the decline."

Preliminary results don't look particularly good for those claiming success for the dropout grant program, Stoops said. "Out of the 100 schools examined, 45 improved their dropout rates at a higher rate than their respective school districts," he said. "On the other hand, 55 schools failed to improve dropout rates relative to their districts."

"When you take a closer look, only 14 of the 45 schools with improved dropout rates also recorded higher graduation rates," Stoops added. "As a whole, the schools that received dropout prevention grant funds did not substantially raise graduation rates or lower dropout rates compared with district and state averages."

Average graduation rates in the 100 schools served by grants dropped from 73.1 percent to 71.5 percent from 2006-07 to 2007-08, Stoops discovered. "That number declined at the same time as the statewide graduation rate increased by 0.8 percent," Stoops said. "That's not the only number that should disturb dropout grant supporters. Another is the dropout rate itself. It's true that the dropout rate declined from 7.2 percent to 6.7 percent in the 100 schools, but that decrease was about equal to the average 0.5 percentage point decrease across the school districts that include the grant-supported schools. Neither figure is much different from the 0.3 percent decrease in the statewide dropout rate."

None of this data makes a great case for the grants, Stoops said. "The burden of proof falls on the defenders of the dropout grant initiative, particularly the Democratic leadership of the legislature who claim that the millions of dollars spent on the programs have directly lowered dropout rates."

Defenders of the grants complain that grant-funded programs haven't had enough time to show signs of success, Stoops said. "That's a valid point -- legislators should have thought of it before they wrote the law in such a way that grant recipients were expected to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs by the end of the 2008 calendar year," he said. "That was foolish. One of the purposes of my earlier dropout grant study was to point out how unreasonable legislative expectations and claims were."

With limited available data, dropout grants to non-profit organizations appeared to have the most success, Stoops said. "Few dropout grants were awarded in the first round of grants to schools, faith-based organizations, or colleges, so the sample is too small to say much about the effectiveness of those grants," he said. "Further empirical research will be required to get a complete picture of the relationship, if any, between dropout prevention grants and dropout rates."

Research will be difficult, Stoops warned. "First, many of the dropout prevention grants will not register an immediate, quantifiable effect on a district or school dropout rate because the programs were designed to reach at-risk elementary and middle schools students," he explained. "More importantly, it will be difficult for grant recipients to establish direct, causal connections between the dropout prevention programs and district or school dropout rates."

"There's no good reason to grant additional money to programs or replicate them based on anecdotal evidence alone," Stoops said. "Instead, grant recipients should be able to quantify their program's ability to retain students and significantly increase the district or school dropout rate. Until then, there's no way for the governor and lawmakers to know whether they're just throwing good money after bad."

Terry Stoops' Spotlight report, "Dropout Prevention Grants: Legislators need to rethink their approach to the dropout problem," is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or tstoops@johnlocke.org. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or mkokai@johnlocke.org.

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