Research to Practice Brief
Improving Secondary Education and Transition Services through Research
August 2004 • Vol. 3, Issue 3
Increasing School Completion: Learning from Research-Based Practices that
By Camilla A. Lehr
Raising graduation rates for students attending schools in the United States
is a national priority. As part of the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are
required to track and report the percentage of students who graduate with a
regular diploma in four years. The magnitude of the problem for student subgroups
(including students of Hispanic and Native-American descent) points to the need
for concerted efforts to design and implement programs and strategies that will
keep youth in school and facilitate successful completion. Additionally, the
cost to students who drop out in terms of lower wages and higher unemployment
rates and the costs to society in terms of lost revenue and increased dependence
on social programs necessitate effective solutions to the problem of dropout.
Students with disabilities are among those youth who are at increased risk
of leaving school early. Within the group of students who are identified as
having a disability, students with emotional, behavioral, or learning disabilities
are most at risk of not completing school. According to the 23rd Report to Congress,
29% of students with disabilities dropped out during the 1999-2000 school year
(U.S. Department of Education, 2001). “Dropped out” is defined as
the total who were enrolled at some point in the reporting year, were not enrolled
at the end of the reporting year, and did not exit through any of the other
categories (e.g., moved, known to continue; moved, not known to continue). Students
with emotional or behavioral disabilities had the highest rate of dropout (51%),
followed by students with learning disabilities (27%).
Given current pressures to raise graduation rates, practitioners and policy
makers are challenged to select or design programs that will effectively engage
students in learning and keep them on the path toward graduation. Increased
attention has also been given to the need for educational decisions grounded
in scientifically-based evidence. This brief will highlight findings from a
recent review of 45 prevention and intervention studies addressing dropout or
school completion described in professional journals (Lehr, Hansen, Christenson,
& Sinclair, 2003). Results can be used to inform practice for those working
with youth (with and without disabilities) who are disengaging from school.
Review of Interventions Related to Dropout
A computerized search of several databases using terms linked to dropout and
school completion was conducted. The search resulted in a list of more than
300 unduplicated citations from 1980 to 2001. Articles were included in the
final review if they (a) were published in a professional journal, (b) focused
on a dropout prevention or intervention program, and (c) included qualitative
or quantitative evidence on the impact of the described program. General summaries
of the literature, nonexperimental studies, and policy reports were omitted.
Who received intervention? Individuals who received the interventions
were most often selected on the basis of poor academic performance (e.g., grade-point
average, test scores) followed by poor attendance (e.g., a high rate of absence
or lateness), teacher referral, and a history of dropping out of school. Poor
attendance and academic performance are consistently identified in the literature
as being highly correlated with dropout. Over half of the studies selected participants
based on two or more criteria. This practice is consistent with the research
literature that suggests the presence of multiple risk factors increases the
risk of dropout. Using multiple risk factors also increases the chances of correctly
identifying students who are most in need of support for staying in school (Dynarski
& Gleason, 1999).
What types of interventions were implemented? The interventions
were categorized according to the following five types.
- Personal/affective interventions. Examples include retreats designed
to enhance self-esteem, regularly scheduled classroom-based discussion, individual
counseling, and participation in lessons on interpersonal relations.
- Academic interventions. Examples include provision of special academic
courses, individualized methods of instruction, and tutoring.
- Family outreach strategies. Examples include increased feedback
to parents or home visits.
- Interventions addressing school structure. Examples include creating
schools within schools, re-defining of the role of the homeroom teacher, and
reducing class size.
- Work-related interventions. Examples include vocational training
and participation in volunteer or service programs.
The majority of interventions were considered personal/affective (71%) followed
by those that included an academic focus (49%). Nearly three quarters of the
individual studies utilized multiple types of interventions (e.g., academic
and family outreach).
What outcomes were measured to determine effectiveness? Five
broad categories were used to cluster the indicators of effectiveness. These
- Academic/cognitive indicators (e.g., grade-point average, standardized
math scores, study habits);
- Physical presence indicators (e.g., attendance, enrollment status);
- Psychological indicators (e.g., self-esteem, depression, student attitudes
- Social-behavioral indicators (e.g., problem behavior, social competence,
drug use); and
- Support for learning indicators (e.g., school climate).
The most frequently measured outcomes were in the academic/cognitive domain
(66%) followed by indicators of physical presence (64%). Although all of the
studies were selected because they focused on dropout or school completion,
not all measured outcomes addressing enrollment status such as graduation rate,
early school withdrawal, or truancy referrals. Only ten studies directly measured
The five examples provided below reflect the diversity of interventions that
have some evidence of effectiveness in preventing dropout. The examples utilized
random assignment or comparison groups and had statistically significant findings
for the treatment group on the enrollment status variable.
- Check & Connect. This model is designed to engage students
in school and learning via a mentor/monitor who establishes a long-term relationship
and maintains regular contact with the student, family, and teachers. Risk
factors are systematically monitored, and interventions are tailored to meet
individual student needs (e.g., increased communication with parents, tutoring,
problem-solving) (Sinclair, Christenson, & Thurlow, in press).
- Support Center for Adolescent Mothers. The family support center
was developed to provide social and educational supports to teen mothers in
order to prevent repeat pregnancy and school dropout. Four key components
of the model include establishing early contact with the mothers, involving
families, implementing parenting education groups, and involving the community
(Solomon & Liefeld, 1998).
- School Transitional Environment Project. The goal of this prevention
program is to enhance healthy school adjustment during school transitions
by restructuring the environmental characteristics of school settings. For
example, students take primary academics with a cohort of students, classrooms
are arranged in close proximity, and homeroom teachers serve as counselors
and a link between students, families, and schools (Felner et al., 1993).
- Teen Outreach Program. This program was designed to prevent teen
pregnancy and school dropout for both males and females by having students
volunteer in their communities and participate in classroom-based discussions
on a weekly basis for one school year. Key elements include learning life
skills, discussing social and emotional issues, and participating in volunteer
service opportunities in the community (Allen, Philliber, & Hoggson, 1990).
- Personal Growth Class. Semester-long personal growth classes are
designed to prevent drug abuse and school dropout among high school students
identified at high risk for school failure. The classes use an intensive school-based,
social-network prevention approach. Key elements include experiential learning,
study-skills training, peer tutoring, and training in decision-making provided
by peers and teachers (Eggert, Seyl, & Nicholas, 1990).
Issues to Consider
Findings from this review support the notion that there is no single best program;
preventing dropout can occur in a variety of ways. It is important to note that
nearly all of the interventions that showed evidence of effectiveness in this
review had a strong focus on engaging students in school and learning. Student
engagement has emerged as a key ingredient of effective dropout prevention programs
and strategies. Rather than simply decreasing dropout, these programs focus
on promoting school completion through approaches that are strength-based, involve
multiple systems in the students’ lives, occur over time, and are individualized
to meet student needs (Christenson, Sinclair, Lehr, & Hurley, 2000). A key
question to ask in the design or implementation of an existing program is, “How
does this program enhance student engagement in school and learning?”
Furthermore, to determine the impact of an intervention, indicators of engagement
(e.g., academic performance, attendance) associated with dropout or school completion,
as well as enrollment status (e.g., graduation rate) must be measured. Finally,
it is important to remember that implementation of proven models, programs,
or strategies is not a simple procedure. Existing programs must be considered
within the context of the students, school, district, or community where implementation
will occur. Information exchange between researchers and practitioners can inform
decision-making and facilitate successful school completion for students with
and without disabilities.
Allen, J. P., Philliber, S., & Hoggson, N. (1990). School-based prevention
of teen-age pregnancy and school dropout: Process evaluation on the national
replication of the teen outreach program. American Journal of Community
Psychology, 18, 505–524.
Christenson, S. L., Sinclair, M. F., Lehr, C. A., & Hurley, C. M. (2000).
Promoting successful school completion. In K. Minke & G. Bear (Eds.), Preventing
school problems—promoting school success: Strategies and programs that
work. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Dynarski, M., & Gleason, P. (1999). How can we help? Lessons from
federal dropout prevention programs. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy
Eggert, L. L., Seyl, C. D., & Nicholas, L. J. (1990). Effects of a school-based
prevention program for potential high school dropouts and drug abusers. International
Journal of the Addictions, 25(7), 773-801.
Felner, R. D., Brand, S., Adan, A. M., Mulhall, P. F., Flowers, N., Sartain,
B., et al. (1993). Restructuring the ecology of the school as an approach to
prevention during school transitions: Longitudinal follow-ups and extensions
for the School Transitional Environment Project (STEP). Prevention in Human
Services, 10(2), 103–136.
Lehr, C. A., Hansen, A., Sinclair, M. F., & Christenson, S. L. (2003).
Moving beyond dropout prevention to school completion: An integrative review
of data-based interventions, School Psychology Review, 32(3), 342–364.
Sinclair, M. F., Christenson, S. L., & Thurlow, M. L. (in press). Promoting
school completion of urban secondary youth with emotional or behavioral disabilities.
Solomon, R., & Liefeld, C. P. (1998). Effectiveness of a family support
center approach to adolescent mothers: Repeat pregnancy and school drop-out
rates. Family Relations, 47, 139–144.
U.S. Department of Education. (2001). Twenty-third annual report to Congress
on the implementation of the Individual with Disabilities Act. Washington,
Author Camilla A. Lehr is with the Institute on Community Integration, University