Monday, April 24, 2006

When Leslie is About to Drop-Out: Is There Reliable Help?

From Po:

Two weeks ago, we analyzed the numbers on high school dropouts, and we painted a slightly different picture than Time magazine and the Gates Foundation. They said the huge number of drop-outs are being covered up with accounting trickery; we said these publications were doing a bit of alarmist manipulation as well. Then we attacked the Gates Foundation for its weak solution – a website called

In the meantime, we went looking for other solutions. And what we learned shocked us.

There are some well-planned “drop-out prevention” programs operating in America’s schools and communities. They have been doing their good work for up to 30 years. They have names like “Job Corps” and “New Chance” and “STEP.” Some are in the schools; some operate on schools as an after-school program or a summer program. Others are located away from the schools in community centers. Despite their differences, most of the programs try some variation of the same concepts. First, they provide a high ratio of counselors to students, creating a hands-on experience. Second, they are vocational, creating a bridge with future careers, promising jobs and skewing the academics to prepare for those jobs. They mix in health education and basic academics.

There are enough of these programs (each of which operates in many schools) for their effectiveness to be studied properly. This meant comparing each program’s high-schoolers against other at-risk students who did not participate in the drop-out programs.

Here’s what they found: the drop-out programs basically do not work. As well-intentioned as these programs are, the students in the drop-out programs are not doing any better than the kids who were unhelped. Not if you measure their income. Not if you measure how many get diplomas. Not on taking GEDs.

The lack of a statistical impact was so surprising that it obliterated the relevance of minor positive impacts in a few programs on sub-populations. For instance, some programs seemed to help only the extremely-at-risk kids. Or one program improved the graduation rate, but not work-status and income a few years later. Of the 16 most-well-known programs analyzed, only one program (Job Corps) showed any across-the-board benefits for the average student in its program. That benefit, while statistically relevant, was still far less than its administrators expected.

In short, they are all failing. Certainly, they are falling short of expectation.

So are these programs no good?

Reading the details of these programs, they sounded great. Blaming the programs is too easy. We certainly don’t want their funding cut. Rather, we started asking the question, “Why aren’t these programs making a difference? Is some other factor missing, that’s needed for these programs to work?”

That was what led us to parenting styles, and how they impact academic performance. We believe that none of these school programs will solve the problem unless paired up with a home environment that coaches academic preparation.

In case that seems too big a leap, consider the impact of preschools and day-care on poor children.

It was once-believed that Head Start would level the playing field for children in poverty. Attending preschool at age 3 and 4 was expected to eradicate the testing gap that already exists by the time children start kindergarten. Well, we know that hasn’t happened, but that’s because Head Start has never been funded in the way it was conceived.

Head Start obviously needs more funding before its success can truly be quantified. But because it is so huge, more funding has been pushed into certain pockets and then been evaluated. This has been a proxy test for the question, “If Head Start were fully available to every poor child, and enough money was thrown at the program so that it operated at its highest quality, what would be the impact on kindergarten readiness?”

If given all the money it ever asked for, could Head Start level the playing field?

The research says, “No.” In this best-case scenario, it can only reduce the test-score difference by about 25%. In other words, if poor children are entering kindergarten scoring 9% lower than middle-class children, we might be able to cut that to 7% or 6%.

No government program can substitute for what needs to happen in every home. We don’t presume that parenting styles can solve the world’s problems all alone either. But all the money is wasted unless we simultaneously raise the awareness of what is necessary for all parents of young children.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, (because you didn’t read our posts of last week,) start here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do we know that Head start does not work?

My Mom worked with Head Start before I was born. She told me a story about a kid whose father was sent to prison for robbing a bank. The mother did not have a job until the kid entered Head Start. After the kid got into Head Start, the mother went to a job training program. The mother got a job so she was able to earn a living. The kid thrived in Head Start. The last we heard, the kid was going to Catholic schools. That kid would be about 45 years old now so the positive in me hopes that the kid, as an adult, is doing well.

I think about Michael Apted's documentary following English kids every 7 years.

It will be interesting to find out what happened to the kids from the early years of Head Start.

Other stories are that an adult counselor from Head Start would take the kids for complete physical check ups. These kids had not seen doctors since they were babies. These kids would get glasses or hearing aids if needed.

So I only heard good things about Head Start.

One complaint I did hear was that it may disillusion the kids because "head start" is not real life whatever that means.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

Good point on the value of Head Start.

For waht it's worth, I didn't say that Head Start does not work. Certainly it has benefit. What the researchers are looking at is whether Head Start has been able to eradicate the academic testing gap between poor and middle class kids by the time they start kindergarten. The research shows that Head Start cannot eliminate more than 25% of that gap. To me, that's more than worth it - I'm a strong proponent of Head Start's necessity.

12:25 PM  

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