February 08, 2001

This study was supported by a grant from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), U.S. Department of Education. The content or opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Education or any other agency of the U.S. Government.

Existing dropout statistics paint a bleak picture for urban youth. At just under 10%, the single year dropout rate for urban districts is nearly twice the national average, with some urban districts struggling with single year dropout rates as high as 20% (Education Week, 1998). It is not surprising that many states and the federal government are calling for major educational reform in urban areas. Unfortunately, aggregated district-level dropout data provide little information about the sites of potential intervention, i.e. the high schools that students attend. While it is generally assumed that the high dropout rates in urban districts are at least in part due to low performing high schools, little is known about how many of these failing schools there are, where they are located, and who attends them. Such information is critical for policymakers, reformers and others concerned with directing resources not only toward measuring the dropout problem, but toward fixing it as well.

The purpose of this study is to begin identifying schools and districts where the high school dropout problem is likely to be most acute. Our central measure of a low performing high school is the ratio of twelfth graders to ninth (or tenth) graders over a four-year period, also called the "holding" or "promoting power" of a school. In the first section of this paper, we use data from Baltimore and Philadelphia to argue that this ratio is a strong indicator of the overall institutional health of a high school and offers a school-based indicator of a school’s dropout rate. We then use national data to identify schools with weak holding/promoting power in the 35 largest central cities across the country. These data reveal an unacceptable number of inner city public high schools that fail to serve the largely minority and low-income students who attend them. They also show cities where the majority of public high schools are weak institutions, essentially denying students access to educational opportunities that meet even the most minimum standards. In the end, however, we argue that the overall number of failing high schools in these urban areas is not so large as to be beyond the reach of committed policy intervention.

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