Viewpoints: Solving Arizona’s high-school dropout problem

by Bob Collins and Sari Factor


Last year Arizona’s high-school graduation rate ranked 44th of 50 states. Despite the country’s overall progress towards record graduation rates – 82.3 percent last year – Arizona is struggling to keep up, with a rate of 77.4 percent.

The prospect of graduating is even dimmer for students of color in the state – only 72.6 percent of African-American students and 72.7 percent of Hispanic students in the state graduated on time last year.

There are enormous consequences for dropouts, their families and their communities. Young adults with a high-school degree earn 25 percent more than those without one. And this divide lasts a lifetime – a high-school graduate’s lifetime income is 50 to 100 percent higher than a dropout’s.

Even more troubling: the incarceration rate for dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24 is 63 times higher than among college graduates, according to a 2009 Northeastern University study.  The impact of dropouts on the economy has been largely ignored. The Alliance for Excellent Education found that if the national graduation rate of the class of 2013 had been 90 percent, annual earnings would increase $7.2 billion, annual spending would increase $5.3 billion, and there would be 65,150 new jobs.

The Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable understands the gravity of this issue and recently studied the economic losses to the community when students don’t graduate.

It found that the state would generate more than $3.8 billion in economic benefits if the dropout rate was cut in half. The study also found that each dropout in Arizona results in an economic drain of $421,280 over his or her lifetime due to decreased earnings and increased public and private expenses for heath, crime and welfare.

With so much talk about Arizona and the country at large “falling behind,” why aren’t we outraged by this?

It limits our economic potential, widens the economic divide and curtails our ability to expand industries like energy and transportation, where educated employees with career skills are sorely needed. And it severely hurts every student who leaves school too soon.

Why do students drop out?

The good news is there are proven strategies to reach these students and help them graduate. Digging into the data on dropouts, we find many leave school because they are bored, have to work to support their families or simply feel they’ve fallen too far behind.

This means our goal must be prevention – intervening before kids fail. The education system is still tied to a textbook while kids are wired differently and learning differently today, with access to information 24/7. We are not confined to the school day anymore. Kids can learn at their own pace over a longer period of time.

We have to get students more engaged in school – and keep them engaged.

RELATED: Just why do students drop out?

It is critical that we address each student as an individual. The learning experience must be transformed to a personalized approach that meets students where they are, based on their needs.

That may mean moving slower or faster through courses to address each student’s developmental needs. It may require offering flexibility in time and place, enabling students to study wherever they may be. Providing access to a greater variety of courses, especially career and technical education, can open up a new world of learning for a student who otherwise might struggle to see personal value in education.

Casa Grande has seen what works

Personalized learning is a proven strategy for dropout prevention. One great example: Casa Grande Union High School District.

This district takes a prescriptive approach, identifying students who are at risk of dropping out and meeting their individual needs. Casa Grande is successful because it establishes an Individual Graduation Plan for each high-school student.

This approach features a data-driven evaluation system comprised of both a macro view of credits completed and needed, and a micro view of what types of concepts are mastered or not. As a result of this individualized program, Casa Grande Unified has seen a whopping 42 percent overall graduation increase from the 2014-2015 school year to the 2015-2016 school year.

Technology is central to personalizing the learning experience. It provides the flexibility needed for many of these struggling or disengaged students, from access to online courses that may not be offered in a student’s local school, to individual pacing and learning anywhere on mobile devices. Technology enables teachers to monitor learning in real time and intervene, helping to close gaps before a student gets too far behind.

Despite the advances we’ve made, we still have a serious dropout problem. But we also know there are proven ways to address this problem. It’s time to personalize the learning experience and keep more students in school.

Bob Collins is Chairman of the Board for the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network (NDPC/N) and Sari Factor is CEO of Scottsdale-based Edgenuity.

Read this article as it appears in The Arizona Republic.

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