Tate recently made a call for scholars to develop a theoretical framework within which to explore the pressing problem of the unacceptably high drop out rates in urban school districts. In this paper we propose such a framework by identifying the essential elements of such a framework and then using that framework to explore the empirical data on the drop out situation in one urban school district. Urban school districts are complex systems nested within communities impacted by a variety of neighborhood and societal-structural factors. As such these school entities exemplify the complex ecologies in a changing world that are the thematic focus of this AERA Convention.
structural pressures that are exerted on black education. (Kozol) Inadequately resourced schools located in settings of concentrated poverty
present unique challenges to community educational progress and the fostering of individuals’ academic resiliency. These structural pressures are
captured in the tenets of critical race theory as well in the notion of structural level analysis and neighborhood effects postulated by Wilson (1998).
To these elements identified in extant theory we propose the addition of elements that capture both individual and community agency. We
propose an action-reaction duality in which individuals and communities are acted upon by societal-structural factors butt in turn are also capable
of an agency that has the potential to deflect or minimize the deleterious effects of those factors. Using this theoretical framework we analyze
district archival and primary data in order to identify those institutional or societal factors that are responsive to changes or interventions
available to the community, the district, and individual students. The ultimate goal is to inform and marshal the vector of the
community’s creative collective agency and bring it to bear on those points or nodes identified as responsive to intervention. We
recognize the potency of both long-term community responses and short-term individual responses in reacting to societal-structural
impediments to progress.
districts in 1999-00. We used district archival data to follow this cohort of 9,176 first-graders over the seven years that spanned their first year 1999-00, through their expected (on time) seventh-grade year 2005-06. The focus of the study was to discern patterns of promotion and retention, attendance, as well as mobility within and ransfer out of the district..
among the researchers and the district administrators. The archival data helped us to identify points of distress that can help
communities and individuals to deploy resources in a more targeted data-driven response with greater potential for effectiveness. The
archival data component was augmented by primary data obtained through interviews with students who have dropped out and
students whose attendance patterns placed them in a high risk for dropping out. Due to space constraints this proposal is limited to
reporting on the archival longitudinal data but the final paper will include the primary interview data as well.
For this cohort, 70.2 percent were still in BCPSS in 2005-06. Among these students,
58.8 percent were in the on-time grade or beyond in 2005-06. The remaining
41.2 percent were behind the expected grade, having been formally retained or
experienced some other disruption that made them overage-for-grade by the time we
would have hoped to see them as seventh graders.
• Almost 30 percent of the cohort was gone from the district by 2005-06. The analyses
show that these students tended to have relatively good attendance patterns before
transferring or withdrawing, fairly stable enrollment patterns (i.e., not experiencing
multiple transfers within BCPSS), and were less likely than those who persisted in the
district to have special education designation.
• The report examines movement between schools (within BCPSS and beyond the
district). Students from the poorest schools (according to free and reduced-price
lunch concentration of first grade school) were especially likely to move among
multiple BCPSS schools while staying in the district at least five years. Students from
the least-disadvantaged schools were especially likely to attend a single BCPSS school
and then to either remain within the district for at least five years or transfer out.
• Regarding attendance and chronic absenteeism, between 13.6 percent and 18.4
percent of students missed at least one-ninth of their days on roll in each of the years
between 1999-00 and 2003-04 (when fifth-grade was the on-time grade). These
numbers rose to 23.2 percent in 2004-05 and 29.0 percent in 2005-06.
• Overall, 22 percent of cohort members missed fully two-ninths of their days on roll
during at least one academic year. This equates to two months out of nine over the
course of a full school year. An additional 25 percent of cohort members missed
more than one-ninth of days on roll but less than two-ninths during some academic
year. Fifty-three percent of the cohort was never chronically absent at the one-ninth
or two-ninths levels.
• There is one pattern of attendance seen over the first five years for this cohort, with
approximately 15 to 18 percent of students chronically absent in each school year.
• We assert that elementary-grade students between the ages of 6 and 10 are
probably not explicitly rejecting school in the dramatic and active ways often
documented among middle and high school students. Rather, patterns of attendance
at this age likely reflect factors involving the health of the student or
family-related obstacles to getting to school.
• There is a second pattern of attendance seen in the sixth and seventh years of our
analysis – when sixth and seventh grades were the on-time grades. We see attendance
dropping off between the fifth and sixth grades and continuing to deteriorate in the
• It is important to ask what would be required to carry the attendance patterns
of Grades 1 through 5 into the middle grades while simultaneously working to
reduce the percent of students in Grades 1 to 5 who miss significant amounts
Outcomes: First, it is worth asking whether
having 40.5 percent of cohort members who remain
in BCPSS behind expected grade level in the seventh year after first grade is a cause
for alarm or reform. Other studies, using both BCPSS data and national data or
other cities, have shown the strong association between retention and dropping out
(Alexander, Entwisle, and Dauber, 2003; Jimerson, Anderson, and Whipple, 2002;
Roderick, 1994; Stearns et al., 2007). The decision to retain a student is generally a
reaction to his or her lack of demonstrated academic proficiency, though it can also
be a response to poor attendance or other behavioral patterns. Arguments can be
made that social promotion as a way to avoid retaining students, even in the face of
poor academic performance, does not benefit either individuals or the educational
enterprise as a whole. On the other hand, a growing body of research demonstrates
quite convincingly that the social stigma and role incompatibilities that come with
being overage-for-grade have independent effects that make dropping out highly
likely – over and above any effects of grades and test scores measured either before or
after retention. Thus, an argument can be made that early diagnosis of academic and
engagement deficiencies, and intensive efforts and supports to avoid grade retention,
should be a high priority for school systems. Secondly, it is worth noting the high percentage of cohort members who withdrew
from BCPSS during the seven years. One wonders about the resources (e.g., social and
human capital) and patterns of educational engagement of these students and families.
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