From exit exams to sugared soda pop to pedophile teachers, California schools are continually dealing with problems both systemic and individual.
But they often gloss over or try to hide the biggest one of all: Dropouts.
Dropouts are the gorilla in the living room of public schools, which have tried for decades to pretend they have little or no such problem.
But even if administrators try to downplay reality, students entering high schools this fall would be well advised to take a close look around at their classmates, because about one-third of them won’t be present when it comes time to graduate.
How bad is the situation? No one is completely certain. But for sure it’s a lot worse than educators admitted it was just a few years ago. As recently as 1998, the last year before a major change in dropout reporting, the state Department of Education claimed a dropout rate of 3.3 percent.
Either the education establishment was outright lying then, or things have suddenly gotten a lot worse. For of the 499,505 kids who entered ninth grade in 2001, only 355,217 graduated in the spring of 2005. Final numbers for this year are not yet in, but they will almost certainly be at least as bad.
What’s more, back in 2005, no one was required to pass the state’s exit exam in order to get a diploma. Bottom line: fully 154,000 students who started as freshmen in 2001 did not graduate four years later. While discussing the exit exam, educators have said about seven percent of high schoolers ordinarily don’t graduate because they have not fulfilled all requirements, aside from the exit exam.
Taking this into account, the 2005 graduation total indicates well over 110,000 students dropped out sometime in the preceding four years, for a variety of reasons.
Not so, many districts say. These numbers don’t include students who move away to other states. Maybe not. But they do include students who transferred into California schools from other states. And since population influx was far greater than outflow during those years, chances are the dropout number is even higher than the raw numbers indicate.
One good thing: At least the schools aren’t lying about this quite as egregiously today as they did a few years ago.
But state officials still don’t like to admit how serious the problem is, rarely even discussing it.
Yet, dropouts are as serious a problem as California has. If it’s important for high school graduates to master certain material in order to qualify for skilled jobs – the rationale behind the exit exam – then kids who drop out are usually going to be doomed to holding extremely unskilled jobs forever, if they work at all.
In effect, dropouts create a permanent underclass suited for flipping hamburgers or parking cars, and not much else. And wherever there is a class perpetually unable to hold decent jobs, crime takes off.
At long last, this year some public officials are actually willing to own up to the fact there is a dropout crisis. “It is the new civil rights issue of our time,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said last March. He’s now trying to take over his city’s massive school district, convinced he can do better at motivating children both to earn and stay in school than the current crop of professional educators.
Of course, his city has the worst dropout problem in the state. Hard numbers indicate the dropout rate in Los Angeles may be as high as 50 percent, with half the kids who enter not finishing. But administrators say the real dropout rate is “only” 25 percent.
No one knows if a charismatic mayor like Villaraigosa would be enough to motivate teenagers. But for sure, even someone like him can’t solve this problem alone.
School districts need to examine curriculum, consider flexible hours to accommodate students who must work to help their families survive and they must develop outreach programs to seek out dropouts when their absences first become habitual, trying to entice them back.
Public schools must solve this problem. For if they can’t, California will be doomed to decades of class and economic divisions far more severe than today’s, with a constant undertone of resentment bound to flare into violence at unpredictable moments.