RALEIGH — More than 70 percent of the school districts that won state dropout prevention grants last year saw their graduation rates decline in 2008. A John Locke Foundation analyst offers that evidence in a new Spotlight report that questions the grants’ value.
“The purpose of dropout prevention grants is to raise the graduation rate,” said report author Terry Stoops, JLF Education Policy Analyst. “That’s why it’s troubling to see declining graduation rates in 27 of the 38 districts that received grants last year.”
Stoops is releasing his report after state lawmakers voted this summer to add another $15 million to the initial $7 million pool for dropout prevention grants. A reauthorized state Dropout Prevention Grant Committee is meeting this afternoon to discuss plans for awarding the new grant money.
“The dropout problem is one of the state’s worst education challenges, but these grants don’t seem to offer much help in addressing the problem,” Stoops said. “While there was a slight increase in the statewide 2007-08 graduation rate, the average graduation rate among grantee districts fell from 71.4 percent to 68.8 percent. That’s an average decline of 2.6 percent.”
Performance varied widely in individual schools with access to dropout prevention grant money, Stoops said. “East Henderson High School’s graduation rate jumped by more than 5 percentage points, while New Hanover County’s Hoggard High School saw its graduation rate tumble by nearly 6 percentage points.”
Among the five grant-funded districts with the largest graduation rate increases, none aimed a grant program solely at high school students, Stoops said. “Hickory Public Schools experienced the largest graduation rate increase, roughly 6 percent,” he said. “Since Hickory’s dropout prevention program targets middle-school students, it appears the school district is doing a fine job increasing the high school graduation rate without the grant funding.”
Grant supporters could argue that it’s too soon to gauge the grants’ effectiveness, but Stoops says lawmakers wanted to target grants to programs that could make an immediate impact. “Those who designed and continue to champion the grant program clearly believed that grants would yield immediate results,” he said. “The program was initially designed to end in June, and it was renegotiated to end in December. The General Assembly expects programs to demonstrate their effectiveness by the end of the 2008 calendar year.”
Focusing undue attention on dropout prevention grants ignores some key facts, Stoops said. “School systems are spending tremendous numbers of dollars on dropout prevention, regardless of the grants, and a number of them have increased their graduation rates using existing resources,” he said. “The Dropout Prevention Grant Committee should take a closer look at districts that successfully raised their graduation rates without a grant.”
There are plenty of options for the committee to consider, Stoops said. “The five North Carolina school systems with the largest increases in 2007-08 graduation rates all had one thing in common: none of them received a single dropout prevention grant,” he said. “No one should infer from this report that dropout grants directly lowered or raised graduation rates. But the report does suggest a troublesome downward slide in district rates that the dropout grants were designed to stop.”
Further research is necessary, but researchers will face some obstacles, Stoops said. “First, programs designed to reach at-risk elementary and middle-school students will not register an immediate, quantifiable effect on a district or school graduation rate,” he said. “Second and more important, it will be difficult for grant recipients to establish direct, causal connections between the dropout prevention programs and graduation rates.”
The grant committee should resist the urge to fund ideas just because they sound good, Stoops said. “Programs should not receive additional funding or replication based on anecdotal evidence,” he said. “Instead, grant recipients should be able to quantify their program’s ability to retain students and significantly increase the district or school graduation rate.”
Terry Stoops’ Spotlight report, “Dropout Prevention Grants: An Update,” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].