Dropouts . . . who cares?

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Dropout crisis. What crisis? In California, officially, the graduation rate is 87 percent and climbing. New accountability measures like the High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) help teachers get students through to graduation. If there was a crisis, there would be extensive media coverage and politicians would be demanding action. The state and local districts have invested millions of extra dollars to improve student achievement and graduate more students—or so the story goes.

Graduation rates are estimates. The most accurate method would be to assign every student a lifetime school identification number. California is moving forward on such an initiative, but until it is implemented, graduation rates remain estimates. California’s official graduation rate is based on a flawed National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) formula. Instead, the more accurate Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) lowers California’s graduation rate to 71 percent for 2002. Among Valley schools, the estimated graduation rate for Fresno Unified School District, for example, was a much lower 57 percent.

Does a 30-40 percent dropout rate constitute a crisis? Dropping out impacts individuals, families and society. Dropouts have more difficulty finding work, and once employed earn substantively less. They are more likely to have health problems, engage in criminal activity and need public assistance than high school graduates. We should be concerned. We should be outraged. Action should be taken. Yet, despite countless studies and increased spending, little has changed since the 1970s. Why?

Researchers have found early academic achievement and engagement are keys to staying in school. Students with poor attendance, behavior problems and low grades in elementary and middle school are more likely to drop out. The federal government responded with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, requiring all schools to move all students toward proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014. To meet these goals, many schools have implemented programmatic changes such as early intervention, intensified learning (rigorous standards and curriculum) and increased school-home liaisons to improve achievement of these at-risk students. These programmatic changes are costly but have not yielded great improvement. Why?

While programmatic changes can help, they may not get to root of the problem. A closer look at the dropout rates reveals that minorities graduate at much lower rates—African-Americans, 57 percent (FUSD 46 percent); Latinos, 60 percent (FUSD 47 percent); and Native Americans 52 percent (FUSD 59 percent)—compared to European-Americans, 78 percent (FUSD 66 percent). Males also graduate at lower rates (67 percent) than females (75 percent).

Perhaps the problem is structural, not programmatic. Public schools prepare children to become productive citizens. Children from diverse backgrounds come together in the giant melting pot to learn a common language and set of values. The common curriculum is delivered in similar ways to all students. Students are told what to learn, how to learn it and when to learn it. Conformity is the rule. Students fit in or are left behind and tend to drop out. This is the old industrial model. Schools need more dramatic reform to help all students graduate and become productive citizens.

Does the old model need to be done away with? No! It works for many students. But, instead of one size fits all, school districts need to expand learning options before it is too late. Parents and students need real choice through a variety of options, starting in elementary school. One of the best ways to do this without building new schools is to create schools-within-a-school, where students make choices based on interest and career path. These smaller schools create improved relationships between teachers and students, leading to improved performance and increased graduation rates. Site administrators, teachers, parents and students should decide class size, curriculum, teaching and support staff and anything else that will improve student learning.

Valley schools should do something dramatic—districts must give parents and students real choice by creating more schools of choice. This is not gradual programmatic reform. Rather, it is structural reform aimed at infusing greater choice to attract, keep and graduate students. One in three students never finishes high school! The people need to tell district officials and state politicians to stop dabbling and promote real school reform. It is possible to increase graduation rates by keeping students in school, but the very structure of schools needs to change. Does the political vision and will exist to address this crisis?

Scott Key is a professor in the School of Education at Fresno Pacific University. Before coming to FPU, he was at the University of Illinois and a member of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago.

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