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Improving the Odds of Completing High School on Time

SED-based Center for Promise studies what it will take to help more students

America’s on-time graduation rate is at an all-time high, with more than 80 percent of students walking across that coveted stage. But not everyone gets an equal share in the joy: African American, Hispanic, and low-income students graduate at rates significantly below the national average. For one group in particular, the chances of collecting a diploma are miserable. In five states, fewer than 50 percent of English-language learners (ELLs) graduate in four years; in two-thirds of states, the number is below 70 percent.

At the School of Education–based Center for Promise, researchers are studying what it would take to get more students graduating on time; the goal is to get the national rate above 90 percent by 2020. One way to help many states, including Massachusetts, step over that threshold is to increase the number of ELLs earning the right to wear a cap and gown. The Bay State graduated 87.3 percent of its class of 2015; the rate for ELL youth, who make up roughly a tenth of students, was 64 percent.

“When we look at the data around ELL students in this country, the graduation rates are some of the worst among any subgroup; it’s not that they can’t succeed, but clearly something’s not going right,” says Jonathan F. Zaff, founder and executive director of the Center for Promise. The center studies the academic and social factors that help young Americans succeed—or not. “All young people have potential, and what we as a society need to do is align the strengths and resources of our community with what the young person needs.”


Statistics from America’s Promise Alliance

In 2017, the Center for Promise partnered with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on a study to “really get into the lives of youth whose first language is not English,” says Zaff, and to understand what it will take to improve their chances of prospering.

The researchers, funded by Pearson Education, a company that provides education publishing and assessment services, conducted a statistical analysis of statewide data, such as free lunch eligibility and grades, on more than 13,000 students whose first language is not English (FLNE)—a group that includes English language learners, plus those who’d previously mastered English, but at some point did not speak it. They also interviewed 24 Latinx (the center uses this gender-inclusive alternative to Latina or Latino) youth from across the state.

“When we look at the data around ELL students in this country, the graduation rates are some of the worst among any subgroup; it’s not that they can’t succeed, but clearly something’s not going right.”
Jonathan F. Zaff

After compiling results, the team found many FLNE students were performing well—sometimes better than their native peers—and that the language spoken at home didn’t always dictate outcomes. For instance, among low-income Spanish-speaking students, those who were longtime residents of the United States had strong graduation rates; their peers who’d been in the country for fewer than two years struggled. Researchers found that one year might make all the difference for those stragglers—their graduation rates jumped significantly when five-year, rather than four-year, graduation figures were considered.

In their report, the researchers conclude that regardless of whether schools are constrained by laws or resources, educational programs don’t tend to reflect the diversity of FLNE students’ needs. Zaff, also an SED research associate professor in applied human development, says tailoring interventions for specific groups—internships and flexible schedules for older youth who may already be part of the workforce, language-learning programs for students’ parents—could “provide the support and opportunities that FLNE youth need to succeed academically.” He adds that the DESE is now working with a coalition of school districts to implement strategies designed to keep FLNE youth in school.

It’s typical that the center, which is the research arm of America’s Promise Alliance—a coalition of more than 400 corporations, nonprofits, and professional associations—produced recommendations not solely focused on the classroom. Its research projects frequently cover health, well-being, and other factors impacting a young person’s chances of success.

Navigating Asylum

For one set of English language learners—asylum-seekers—the journey through an American school can be littered with additional obstacles. As an ELL math teacher in Chelsea, Mass., Valerie Eisenson saw that many immigrant students, especially those who’d experienced trauma, lacked the support they needed. Deciding to research programs that could help, Eisenson (SED’17) scrutinized books and statistics related to asylum-seekers in public schools. Among her findings were the importance of helping educators better understand their students’ cultures and of maintaining a school climate that “does not unconsciously mimic the violence and discrimination of our society against immigrants,” she says. “We must learn about, and respect, the cultural values of our students’ families.” It’s a lesson she applies by keeping “up-to-date on current events and politics surrounding immigration, deportations, gang violence, and learning as much as I can about my students’ histories.”

Zaff gives the example of “Don’t Call Them Dropouts,” the center’s nationwide study of 18-to-25-year-olds that was supported by Target and published in 2014. Researchers found most dropouts didn’t deserve that label, concluding that toxic circumstances—violence at home, serious health issues, homelessness—“made schooling less salient to their lives, preventing them from finishing school,” he says. Many students found help hard to come by. When one of them, Antonio, tried to tell adults at school about his difficulties at home—including absent parents and an experience with homelessness—“they didn’t care,” he said in the report. “You know from the way that they come at me on a regular basis…they don’t try to talk to me.”

The center recommended starting community navigator programs—adults mentoring youth through traumatic life events—and school-based early-warning systems to flag students facing issues that could push them out of education. In a national follow-up study, Zaff says, the center concluded “it’s a ‘web of supports’ that youth need in order to stay on track in school or to reengage if they have disengaged.”

Zaff hopes that a greater appreciation for the adversities bombarding youth, especially those who might seem hard to reach or appear threatening to some adults, encourages more people—from teachers to school janitors—to make a connection with them. It can often be enough, he says, just to recognize the issues facing a young person and point them in the right direction for help.

“If we can start to change people’s understanding about who these young people are and about what they deal with on a daily basis, then we’ve made progress.”

Andrew Thurston can be reached at thurston@bu.edu.

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