Defining the Dropout Problem as a Step Toward the Solution in Montana

By Aurora Moore
April 2015

Collective impact initiatives thrive on meaty problems—problems worth the attention, energy, and resources of the community that cannot be solved by the efforts of single organizations or sectors.

At Education Northwest, we are currently working with three communities in Montana that formed communitywide initiatives around the problem of high school graduation. It’s through a statewide program called Graduation Matters Montana (GMM) that is sponsored by State Superintendent Denise Juneau who maintains a relentless focus on improving graduation rates and promotes the power of grassroots community engagement by seeding local action with small grants from the Office of Public Instruction. Support also comes from local chapters of the United Way, districts, school staff, and community-based organizations.

Our work is to help strengthen the local GMM initiatives by building capacity for data and evidence use and strategic planning. The first step in this process is to clearly define the specific social problem the initiative is working to solve.

The problem of high school graduation might be defined as keeping students in school and reducing the number of students who drop out. But, as the GMM groups began to delve more deeply into the nature of the problem and the root causes that lead students to drop out, they began to broaden the scope of their work. They saw that high school graduation is the end goal of a long pathway and that the problem they are really trying to solve may occur earlier along that path. For example, knowing that school attendance is an important predictor of high school graduation, Graduation Matters of Greater Gallatin County decided to work collectively on addressing chronic absenteeism. In Great Falls, groups are working on attendance, third-grade reading, and early childhood education—all in service of graduation. And, in Missoula, public-health policy leaders are looking to tackle the problem of prenatal stress as part of their efforts, believing that adverse neonatal experiences play an important role in long-term outcomes. In this way, improving high school graduation rates may require unpeeling the layers of the problem, identifying new indicators, and addressing multiple, related factors simultaneously.

Once a group knows what it is working on, the next step is to the use data and evidence to make sure that the problem is well understood by those engaged in creating solutions and by the community as a whole. This means understanding the scope and nature of the problem locally and what we know from national research and practice. For example, in Greater Gallatin County, we are using data to identify the number and percentage of students who are chronically absent across grade levels and schools. These data help show the extent of the problem and whether there are particular groups of students who are more likely to be absent, which, in turn, relates to disproportionality and equity. The group will also be using student surveys and focus groups to better understand why students miss school, as well as looking at the wider research base on absenteeism to contextualize their findings. Once these data have been gathered, the group intends to share what they’ve learned at an open forum to get additional input from students and families and help focus community attention on this important issue.

It can be a slowgoing process—to get a thorough, evidence-based understanding of a problem. Data are often harder to collect than imagined with unexpected roadblocks that are apt to frustrate. As one stakeholder in Greater Gallatin put it, this is the “groan phase.” But, it’s worth it; patience in moving through this groan phase will help to ensure that collective actions are aligned to the root causes and factors of the problem itself, thereby ensuring greater impact in the long run.

What examples can you share of projects that explored root causes to problems and used data and evidence to guide solutions?