How to Identify a High School Dropout Factory

A former teacher discusses the dysfunction at an underperforming school.

By SHARE

Many of America's high school dropouts attend schools that graduate fewer than 60 percent of their students. Although the number of these "dropout factories" has decreased from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,634 in 2009, according to a March 2011 report by America's Promise Alliance, thousands of students still fail to graduate from these high schools.

As one would expect, problems run rampant at these schools, according to Nelson Reidar, a teacher who spent the 2010-2011 school year training educators in classroom management skills at a Southern California high school that graduated just 30 percent of its students this year. What he saw shocked him so much that he wrote a book called Education Malpractice. Reidar's publisher decided to not publish the name of his school.

"I saw so many incredibly dysfunctional things during my year in the dropout factory that I was compelled to describe what I saw," he writes. "My goal is not to revel in all the problems, but the problems need to be revealed in order to be addressed."

Reidar, who spent 41 years teaching in public schools, says the issues at dropout factories come from all sides. At the school in question, a well-intentioned principal seemed oblivious to student behavior problems, and some teachers were apathetic while others were in over their heads and unable to control disruptive students.

[Learn about improving graduation rates.]

"It was so chaotic," Reidar says. "During class time, kids were roaming around the campus; at lunch time there was trash everywhere."

That doesn't mean all dropout factories are the same, or that schools who graduate most of their students don't face some of the same issues, but Reidar believes many schools suffer from similar problems. Here are some of the issues he identified—and areas educators can tackle to improve these dropout factories.

A hamstrung principal: Reidar says the American system of giving teachers tenure makes for weak principals that have little authority to change a school's culture. Teachers "believe they're the masters of their classrooms," he says. "There are some remarkable principals who gain the respect and ability to work with their staff," but those are few and far between.

High suspension rates: Reidar's dropout factory had a suspension rate of 108 percent, meaning that nearly 2,500 suspension days were handed out to its 2,300 students. That amounts to nearly $110,000 in lost funding, because many states allocate money based on attendance.

Apathetic teachers: At his school, Reidar describes a teacher who consistently gave students textbook assignments as he surfed the Internet. "It's just crazy to think that he thinks he's doing a good job," he says.

Not all teachers at dropout factories are the same, of course. "There are some highly dedicated teachers who wouldn't want to be anywhere else because they see a need and they feel it's their calling to help," he says. "But then there are other teachers who just show up."

[Read about a recent study that says many teachers may be overpaid.]

Overwhelmed students: "It is possible to learn at a dropout factory," he says. His school had a host of Advanced Placement and honors classes, but students were often encouraged to take them simply because students in other classes were too disruptive. Offering many AP classes also allows schools to game some high school ranking systems that take into account the number of AP exams given to students.

"They require kids who are in AP classes to take the exams," he says. "They don't pass any of them, and the school pays [for them to take the exams], knowing they'll fail."

Lack of technical training: Once students fall behind by failing a class, their options begin to dwindle. Retaking English and math classes take the place of participating in elective or vocational classes.

[Learn why vocational schools are becoming more popular.]

"There's nothing fun, nothing that helps them get a job," Reidar says. "Sometimes, we have to be realistic about some of the students we're teaching. Their goal is not to go to college; their goal is to get a job. We're not training them for any jobs."

See how your school stacks up in our rankings of Best High Schools. Have something of interest to share? Send your news to us at highschoolnotes@usnews.com.