What States are Doing to Address America’s Dropout Challenge: How Federal Policy Can Help

What States are Doing to Address America’s Dropout Challenge: How Federal Policy Can Help
What States are Doing to Address America’s Dropout Challenge: How Federal Policy Can Help



Jobs for the Future shared findings from two soon-to-be-completed comprehensive scans examining policy on alternative education and dropout prevention in all fifty states. These policy scans reveal significant legislative activity in these important policy areas, since the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation. Based on rigorous research and deep relationships with expert practitioners, Jobs for the Future has identified a set of model policies that create the right conditions of support for successful programs and schools. Barbara Knaggs from the Texas Education Agency and James Witty, from the Tennessee Department of Education then shared information on their states’ efforts to improve alternative education and dropout recovery through both policy and practice.

Adria Steinberg, Vice President, Jobs for the Future began with a description of Jobs for the Future (JFF).  Focusing on economically disadvantaged low-income youth and adults, including the need to increase the number of low-income and minority youth who graduate from high school, are college ready, and gain a college degree or a postsecondary credential, JFF hopes to influence the improvement of the high school graduation and post-secondary success rate for the 30% of young people nationally who are disengaged from school, get off track, and who are unlikely to ever graduate from high school.

According to Steinberg, the need to focus on dropouts and alternative education is great and the time is now.  Describing a broken educational pipeline (graduation from high school, prepared for college, enrolled in post secondary education, completing post secondary education), where too many young people, especially low-income young people, are unprepared to succeed and do not succeed.  Given the national spotlight on the dropout rate and the position of the field knowing more than ever before about what works to prevent dropping out and to recover those who have, Steinberg urge the time for action is now.

Recently, state activity to raise the graduation rate and reduce the drop out rate has increased; leadership at the state level is essential to reform.  To document progress in the states, JFF is work on two scans of legislation relating to alternative education and drop out prevention and recovery at the state level. These scans will be published as policy briefs on the JFF website, www.jff.org in the near future.

The first scan,  Reinventing Alternative Education:  An Assessment of Current State Policy and How to Improve It, examines and analyzes the policy environment related to alternative schools and programs that work with the young people who have disengaged from or dropped out of school.

The model policy elements needed in state legislation in order to attain goals of improving alternative education include:


  • Broader Eligibility:  Alternative education needs to be “normalized” by making it available for all students who are struggling in school and not just those who are disruptive.  There could be changes in eligibility, so that alternative education is not just short-term solution for trouble makers.
  • Clearer Guidelines:  Clearer state level guidelines and oversight should be set, while retaining local authority. Without clear guidance there can be program disparities.
  • Accountability for Results:  Schools could be held common standards, particularly so that students can meet state standards.  However, progress should also be recognized and rewarded.

Enriched Funding:  Targeting resources toward students with greater need considering the dual role of alternative education, to reengage students and to also accelerate their learning with the necessary academic and social supports.

  • High Quality Teachers:  Build a cadre of teachers skilled in content, pedagogy, and youth development.
  • Enhanced Support Services:  Require and help schools provide student supports through partnerships with community based organization (CBOs) and city agencies.
  • Innovation:  Flexible approaches to catching students up educationally depending on how close/far students are from graduation.

Cheryl Almeida, Program Director, Jobs for the Future then provided information on the key findings regarding state legislation on alternative education.  Since 2000, 33 states have passed new legislation and/or put new regulations in place related to alternative education.  Signs of progress, based on the model policy elements above, include broader eligibility (not limited to discipline problems, but open to any children who are struggling), clearer guidelines, more accountability (for student progress, but also rewards for progress), funding, and support services.  Major challenges remain including recruiting high quality teachers and innovation.

The scan of legislation yielded the following information:

  • 14 states broadened their eligibility criteria
  • 16 states provided clearer guidance
  • 10 states increased accountability for results (either improved or were more transparent about their progress)
  • 15 states enriched funding
  • 2 states focused on improving teacher quality
  • 13 states provided enhanced services (including partnerships with CBOs and state agencies)
  • No state addressed innovation in their legislation


The second study discussed,  Dropout Prevention and Recovery:  An Assessment of State Policy and How to Improve It,  begins by describing the magnitude of the drop out problem.  Thirty percent of youth nationally are not on track to graduate.  Steinberg then continued by outlining the model policy elements of state drop out legislation.  These are:

  • Counting and Accounting for Dropouts:  Set public goals for improving graduation rate and to measure graduation rates using cohort methodology.
  • Using Graduation and On-track Rates as a Trigger for Reform and Reinvention:  Serious, school-based and systemic reform should  provided to struggling along with the development new recuperative options.
  • Reinforcing the Entitlement to Education:  Schools should be reminded of their obligation to deliver free public education through graduation or at least21 years of age.  This education should include preparation for entry into postsecondary education or the world of work.
  • Accelerating Preparation for Postsecondary Success: Include underrepresented and at-risk students in strategies for accelerating students to high school graduation and postsecondary success.
  • Inventing New Models:  Encourage the development of recuperative models, through a competitive grant system or other means that provides opportunities for innovation and scalability.


Almeida then reported on the key findings on state dropout policies.  New legislation was enacted in 34 states since 2002.    There are real signs of progress, such as accelerating learning, increasing accountability and reinforcing entitlement to public education, but big challenges remain.  Challenges include using graduation and on-track rates as a trigger for reinvention and inventing new models.  The result of the state scan was as follows:

  • 15 states improved counting and accounting for dropouts, publicly reporting their data.  Four more will report data soon.
  • 18 states used graduation and on-track rates as a trigger for targeted reinvention and four used these same measures as a trigger for reinvention.
  • 21 states reinforced the entitlement to education, closing policy loopholes that had allowed them to turn away youth who are 18 to 19 years old.
  • 14 states accelerated preparation for post-secondary education, including explicitly target under-represented, at-risk students for accelerated learning  and increasing students taking AP classes and using credit recovery methods.
  • Inventing new models was legislated in two states.


Barbara Knaggs, Associate Commissioner for State Initiatives, Texas Education Agency spoke about Texas state policies to reduce the dropout rate and recover dropouts.  Texas has 4.6 million students in approximately 1,200 school districts with about 8,000 campuses.  There are approximately 1,700 high schools.  The state as two big issues:  size and diversity.  Size varies widely from eight large urban school districts such as Dallas and Houston with hundreds of thousands of students to small rural school districts in the Eastern and Western parts of the state, some with only 30-50 students.  State-wide, 55% of Texas students are economically disadvantaged and half (2.3 million) are at-risk of dropping out of school.  In 2006-2007, the dropout rate in Texas was approximately 11%, corresponding to 52,000 students who dropped out.

She indicated that the type of federal policies that would be most helpful to a big, diverse state like Texas would be:  (1) pressure with support and (2) flexibility with accountability. While indicating that Texas still has many challenges and a long way to go on the dropout challenge, Knaggs said that Texas did start early in an effort to both document and address the dropout challenge.  The state’s first began collecting data on dropouts in 1984.  In 1987, Texas added a definition of dropout to statute, increasing state and district responsibilities.  In 1990, Texas implemented its state Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS), including graduation and dropout rates.  In 1993, the state implemented a performance-based accountability system that included dropout rates.  In 1998, a grade 7-12 longitudinal rate was added to the AEIS.  By 2004, the state added a grade 9-12 cohort-based completion rate as an indicator in the state accountability system.  Now, every Texas school district is rated on this longitudinal dropout data, as well as the annual dropout rate.  In 2005-06, Texas adopted the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) definition of dropout.


Since 2003, the state of Texas and private foundations have collaborated on a high school reform and dropout prevention project called the Texas High School Project.  Working with school districts, this project has redesigned  93 underperforming Texas high schools, and established  79 new models, including early college high schools (29 developed) and Texas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (T-STEM) academies (38 developed)..

In 2006, Texas passed legislation that increased core academic courses required for graduation, added funding for every student in 9th through 12th grade ($320 million per year in additional funding), and provided vertical teams for college readiness and standards.  Another bill included changes to student assessment, moving away from exit-level assessment to end-of-course exams in 9th through 12th grades.

In 2007, an omnibus bill created a number of new dropout prevention pilot programs, and the state doubled its funding for dropout prevention and high school reform. As part of that bill, a $6 million pilot project was started for programs to recover dropouts.  These programs were given maximum flexibility along with increased accountability.  Flexibility included no required seat time for students; accountability included no payments, beyond some baseline money, until benchmarks were met.  A variety of service providers including colleges and non-profits were allowed to apply to be providers though an application process.    Currently, there are 22 grantees including two community colleges and three non-profits.

Another dropout prevention strategy was to form a taskforce with someone from each department in the Texas Education Agency to identify dropout issues that crossed departmental lines.  This group mapped out their assets, developed intra-agency solutions, and put them on a website.  They found that schools often do not know that strategies exist or, if aware of them, how they can be used.

Texas also effectively leverages some of their federal funding sources to promote their dropout prevention and recovery agenda.  For example, 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLCs) provided funding for after-school programs and the state prioritized some of dollars to be directed to high school activities.  Similarly, they prioritized some of their Title II, Part B funds to support T-STEM professional development for high schools.  TANF funds were used in part for Communities-in-Schools.  Title I funds were used to support Early College High School and other reforms.

James Witty, Executive Secretary of the Governor’s Advisory Council for Alternative Education; Special Projects Manager, Office of School Safety and Learning Support, Tennessee Department of Education, and Vice President for the

National Alternative Education Association (NAEA), gave an overview of the opportunities and challenges related to alternative education in Tennessee, including changes that have been made in state law. He also made recommendations for federal policy based upon both his work in Tennessee and with NAEA .

In Tennessee, alternative education encompasses both punitive schools and programs (such as those for suspension and expulsion) and some nontraditional schools.  Demand for alternative education is on the rise; during the 2007-2008 school year, 21,721 students were provided services in an alternative educational setting.  This was a 20% increase over the previous school year

The Tennessee Governor’s Advisory Council for Alternative Education was formed in 2006.  Its mission included: considering any issue, problem or matter related to alternative education; studying proposed plans for alternative education programs or curricula/models; considering rules of governance; reporting annually to the General Assembly; and creating a Feasibility Study for the establishment of pilot sites across the state of Tennessee.

Tennessee is in the process of redefining alternative education.  It is currently defined as a “short term (one year of less) intervention program designed to develop academic and behavioral skills for students who have been suspended or expelled from the regular school program.”  The Advisory Council has worked to change this definition  to “a nontraditional academic program designed to meet the student’s educational, behavioral, and social needs.”  The old system had a punitive perspective; but the new concept would allow the creation of a nontraditional alternative education high school that would also assist with dropout prevention.  The new definition is working its way through the General Assembly and should become law July 1.

The Advisory Council developed a list of 12 quality indicators for alternative education, using research-based information on what constitutes a high quality program.  The list was adopted by the State Board of Education as recommended standards for alternative education.  It is merely a recommendation as mandating compliance would require enriched funding to school districts.  The quality indicators relate to the following broad areas:  Mission, Program Environment, Governance, Transitional Planning, Support Services, Parent/Community Engagement, Staffing and Professional Development, Individualized Learner Plans, Life Skills, Curriculum and Instruction, Student Assessment, and Monitoring and Program Assessment.  Similarly, the National Alternative Education Association also developed a list of exemplary practices in alternative education which can be found at www.the-naea.org.

In terms of the funding environment, Witty mentioned that alternative education costs more than regular education however usually receives much less funding.  This assessment aligns with the earlier recommendation that policies should enrich funding.  Also, funding does not always follow the student into an alternative placement.  Sometimes funding stays at the home school and sometimes it is split between the home school and the alternative school.  Next year will be the first year that all alternative learners in Tennessee, whether in an alternative school or alternative program, will be tracked, which will hopefully give Tennessee a better understanding of what the alternative learner looks like.      In an effort to combine and leverage resources, Tennessee is considering combining several different alternative and nontraditional programs in the same school buildings.

Current challenges in Tennessee include budget constraints that are causing districts to downsize their current alternative education services, when alternative education actually requires increased funding to be successful.   Education funding in Tennessee is typically tied to school official numbers, but no such numbers are tied to alternative programs.  As they are not covered under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and are not held to the same standards as schools funded by NCLB, the Department of Education has not assigned them official school numbers but has plans to begin doing so during the next school year.


Witty believes that several successful federal initiatives have lessons applicable to alternative education.  For example, 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLCs) has proved that federal policy can be pushed down to the program level.  Safe School/Healthy Students has taught them that education, mental health and juvenile justice have to work together.

Witty shared an anecdote about a student in an alternative setting, a foster child whose mother was a drug addict and who had never had a real stable home.  She said the alternative school was the first place she had ever called home.  It had kept her from dropping out of high school.

Witty’s federal policy recommendations were:

  • Invest in a position within the US Department of Education to support state alternative education coordinators.
  • Create an Alternative Education Task Force at the federal level to examine issues states are facing relative to alternative education and that also has the autonomy to develop and implement solutions for states.
  • Invest in alternative education by providing earmark funding (a federal funding stream for alternative education).  In addition, funding should allow both alternative schools and individual programs to receive monies.
  • Designate a portion of the stimulus package to specifically build or refurbish old educational facilities that will in turn serve as an alternative program or school.


Highlights from the Question and Answer Session

Jennifer Lerner, American Youth Policy Forum, started off the question and answer session by asking what recommendations each speaker had for federal policy.  Witty responded that he would like to see state level strategies applied at the federal level, such as a federal task force on alternative education and a federal coordinator at the U.S. Department of Education as a contact person.  Steinberg responded that the administration can use the bully pulpit to call attention to the 30% of young people who are marginalized.  She added that the country can never meet its recently reiterated educational goals without addressing this issue.  She advised that it is a good time to leverage and expand on the commitment states have shown both to alternative education and drop out prevention and recovery by targeting these issues with a portion of innovation funds under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act’s (ARRA) Race to the Top initiative.  Knaggs added that while there are numerous programs for disadvantaged youth, they each have detailed and complex requirements which differ from one program to the next.  She suggests again that they would trade increased accountability for increased flexibility.


The next question was whether there are examples of excellent alternative education programs informing high school reform.  Almeida replied that Portland, Oregon is actively engaged in this type of sharing of best practices.  In fact, the public schools are now using an 8th to 9th grade transition program developed by Open Meadow (Open Meadow, in North Portland, is a private, non-profit, accredited, educational organization serving youth who have not fared well in the public schools, including those who have dropped out or who have had attendance, academic, or disciplinary issues.  For more information, see www.openmeadow.org.)  New York City transfer schools are also recognized as successful models.  Steinberg added that New Visions for Public Schools, in New York City, is a school development organization which shares ideas across schools both traditional and alternative.  Witty said that in Tennessee the state board was so receptive to standards developed for alternative schools that they are receptive to creating and/or revising high school standards.  Knaggs said that several high school reform models incorporate learning from alternative schools including the personalization of learning, alternative delivery of instruction, and use of individual learning plans.

A question was asked regarding whether states are not interested in recovering the 30% of youth who are marginalized because it is just too expensive.  Steinberg replied that it is certainly easier to make the case for prevention of dropping out than for drop out recovery.  However, using economic models can prove the value of taking action versus the cost of ignoring the financial cost to cities, states and the nation of having so many youth drop out.


Given that the speakers suggested that alternative education should cost more than traditional education, another questioner asked how much it would actually cost per student to deliver alternative education.  Knaggs responded that not all the money needs to be new as current monies are not coordinated well and all have different requirements.



Cheryl Almeida directs JFF’s research on improving options and outcomes for struggling students and out-of-school youth. She has over 20 years experience in research and evaluation as well as policy and program development in education and child development. Recent publications have focused on the education persistence of dropouts and state policy that supports improved outcomes for struggling students and out-of-school youth. As a member of Jobs for the Future’s Expert Faculty, she provided technical assistance and professional development to the Connected Learning Communities Network and helped develop a toolkit that offers practical ways for communities to develop, sustain, and assess community-connected learning. Previously, for the Benchmark Communities Initiative, she was lead designer on cross-site surveys for teachers, business supervisors, and students; conducted site visits to assess district status on school-to-career goals, implementation, and success; and wrote policy-based reports on findings.

Ms. Almeida has 15 years experience as an education consultant on research, policy, professional development, and evaluation. She received her M.A. from Tufts University in applied developmental psychology and her B.A. in psychology from Holy Cross College.

Barbara Knaggs serves as the Associate Commissioner for State Initiatives at the Texas Education Agency.  A former high school teacher, she joined the agency in February 2004 as the State Program Manager for the Texas High School Project, a public-private alliance to improve graduation rates and college readiness rates in Texas high schools. Subsequently, she served as the Senior Director for Secondary School Initiatives and was responsible for establishing strategic goals and objectives for statewide secondary school-related initiatives.  Before taking on the role of Associate Commissioner, she served as acting Senior Advisor for the Office of Education Initiatives, overseeing the development and implementation of multiple statewide education initiatives, including educator incentive programs, secondary school reform initiatives, Communities In Schools, and other federal and state dropout prevention programs.  In her current role as Associate Commissioner, she supervises three divisions which are responsible for statewide education programs, including early childhood education, secondary school reform initiatives, dropout prevention programs, and programs for limited English proficient students. A 1987 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Plan II, Knaggs obtained a secondary teaching certificate from the University of Texas at Austin in 1992 and a Master of Public Affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin in 2003.  Prior to obtaining her teaching certificate, she worked as an equity trader for PaineWebber. A year and a half of travel in Asia and a teaching experience in Kathmandu, Nepal led to her career in education.


Adria Steinberg leads JFF’s work on expanding and improving educational options and outcomes for the large group of young people who are struggling to stay on or get back on the road to a productive adulthood. Ms. Steinberg has almost four decades of experience in the field of education—as a teacher, administrator, researcher and writer. Combining knowledge of practice, policy, and research, her articles and books have made her a key contributor to the national conversation about high school reform.

Ms. Steinberg leads JFF’s work with the City of Boston’s High School Renewal initiative and with a collaboration of three foundations to address the nation’s dropout crisis. In Boston, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $13.6 million to the city for the creation and development of small, effective high schools. At the end of four years, as a result of that investment and Boston’s existing innovative small schools, over 30 percent of high school students will attend small, purpose-designed high schools. JFF serves as fiscal agent for the grant and provides design and technical assistance to the new small schools to ensure that graduates make smooth transitions to further education and training.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation have invested a total of $2 million to combat the silent crisis of too many students dropping out of high school. They have made grants to enable Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland (OR), and San Jose to strengthen their strategies for reducing the numbers of young people who drop out and reconnecting those who have left school. JFF staffs this initiative and provides strategic consultation to the city partnerships.
Ms. Steinberg has authored many publications, including a five-year stint as primary writer/editor of The Harvard Education Letter. She was also the academic coordinator of the Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she co-directed the federally funded Vocational Integration with Academics project.
She graduated with honors from Swarthmore College and received her M.Ed. from Boston University.


James Witty attended Middle Tennessee State University and received a Bachelors of Science Degree and his Masters Degree in Business Education.  He is currently attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga pursuing a Doctor of Education degree in Learning and Leadership with research efforts geared toward best practices in alternative education.  In fact, James was the primarily author of the recently released “Exemplary Practices in Alternative Education:  Indicators of Quality Programming” which stemmed from research for his dissertation.


James has over ten years experience working with at-risk students as a teacher, district administrator, and state coordinator.  For the past three years, James has worked for the Office of School Safety and Learning Support, a division of the Tennessee Department of Education, where he is the coordinator for alternative education.  Next year, James’ role will expand with Tennessee’s launch of the Nontraditional High School and the Nontraditional Hybrid High School.   James is the Executive Secretary for both the Governor’s Advisory Council for Alternative Education and the Study Council for Alternative Education.  Furthermore, James was recently elected by his peers as Vice President of the National Alternative Education Association.  James is also a certified instructor and trainer for the American Red Cross with extensive knowledge in emergency management. 




A Forum – Friday, April 17, 2009

Cheryl Almeida
Program Director
Jobs for the Future
88 Broad Street
Boston, MA 02110

Barbara Knaggs
Associate Commissioner for State Initiatives
Texas Education Agency
1701 North Congress Ave.
Austin, TX 78701

Adria Steinberg
Vice President
Jobs for the Future
88 Broad Street
Boston, MA 02110

James Witty
Alternative Education Coordinator
Tennessee Department of Education, Executive Secretary of the Governor’s Advisory Council for Alternative Education
Andrew Johnson Tower
James Robertson Pkwy
Nashville, TN 37234


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.