As part of his education agenda during the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama outlined a plan to deal with high school dropouts by passing laws that pay for middle school interventions.
Obama used his competitive K-12 education grant program -- originally a component of his economic stimulus package -- to keep this promise. Before we explain how, let's delve into a little background about the pledge.
Even though education advocates use the phrase "dropout crisis” to refer to high school dropouts, Obama focused on middle school policies. Why?
"Students who drop out typically start on that path years before,” said Joanna Fox, an education policy analyst at Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center.
Students often have a record of misbehaving and skipping school days long before they leave on a permanent basis, Fox said.
That's probably why Obama talked about middle school intervention, even though students tend to drop out between the 8th and 9th grades.
Social scientists have two major ways of measuring high school dropouts: One is called an "event dropout rate” and the other is called the "status dropout rate.” One takes a snapshot of students who dropped out in a given year; the other looks at data over a four-year span for all people old enough to be attending school, including dropouts and people who never enrolled.
Both have their limitations and the Education Department is close to having a new national method for counting dropouts that is supposed to be more accurate and useful. Nonetheless, both metrics tell a similar story: The percentage of high school students who drop out has decreased steadily in the last three decades.
The chart below shows how the two dropout rates trend downward over time, based on a report from the National Center for Education Statistics last year.
Despite the encouraging trend, about a quarter of students in the United States still don't graduate high school and the statistics for some states and some schools are much worse.
Obama tackled dropout prevention by spending roughly $50 million a year between 2010 and 2012 on the High School Graduation Initiative. This money went directly to school districts for proven dropout prevention strategies and for bringing dropouts back to school.
We examined 2010 award winners for the initiative and found school districts in Texas, New York, and Mississippi that hired coaches to bring dropouts back to both middle and high school. The money also paid for staff to counsel students in middle and high school with a pattern of truancy before they drop out.
The other way the Obama administration sought to reduce dropouts was its selection criteria for roughly $5 billion in Race to the Top competitive grants.
Originally a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the economic stimulus, Race to the Top received additional funding in 2010, 2011 and 2012. States with plans for increasing their graduation rates and a record of improving those rates in recent years stood a better chance of receiving money. States with plans for collecting better long-term data on dropouts could fare better in the selection process as well.
Obama said he would pass legislation to pay for dropout prevention strategies at middle schools. His economic stimulus package got the ball rolling, and he added momentum with more money and programs in later years. We rate this a Promise Kept.