Three things are clear in aftermath of huge headlines trumpeting the 24 percent dropout rate reported last month by California’s public school officials:
1. The schools are at long last ready to admit there’s a dropout crisis of catastrophic magnitude.
2. The figures reported are still far lower than what is occurring in real life.
3. Public schools will have to make major changes if they are to come anywhere close to achieving their mission of educating California’s children to become productive and efficient adults.
The first of these points may be most significant. This column and a very few other news outlets reported for much of the last 10 years that the high school dropout rate in California was close to one-third. That is, of every nine students who enrolled for their freshman year in any given fall, about three would disappear before their purported graduation day rolled around.
When those claims were first presented, based on comparing the number of students enrolling as freshmen with the number of graduates four years later, education officials scoffed. They said many missing students had transferred, moved out of state, switched to home schools or made myriad other moves.
Most school districts at first admitted dropout rates ranging between 4 percent and 12 percent. As recently as last year, state officials pegged it at 13.6 percent.
But numbers released in late July by state Schools Supt. Jack O’Connell far eclipsed those. The state now admits an overall dropout rate of just over 24 percent, based on new reporting methods. There are no apologies for the outright lies officials told over many years of serious denial.
So there’s the admission, at long last, of a serious crisis.
But even that crisis is soft-pedaled. The actual dropout rate is probably at least 10 percent higher than what is now admitted. That’s because even though schools now track students through transfers, there are still serious flaws in the way dropouts are calculated.
Notes the pro-school voucher group California Parents for Educational Choice, the new figures are based on self-reported, un-audited data from school districts and county offices of education that have a vested interest in making themselves look good. What’s more, the new information does not account for students who drop out in middle schools, long before they reach high school.
“In the scientific world,” notes the group’s president, Dr. Alan Bonsteel, “self-reported and unverified data is never accepted… We’ve seen this kind of system in the past and the school districts simply pretended not to see when the kids disappeared.”
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a prospective 2010 candidate for governor, is another skeptic. He says the reported dropout rate for his city’s schools – a dismal 33 percent – is actually closer to 50 percent or 60 percent.
“I know it is higher than they are saying,” Villaraigosa asserted.
So it’s a pretty sure bet that even the new, far-higher official dropout rate is still lowballed, meaning the crisis is far worse than the state admits.
Documented dropouts are up about 5 percent since passing the high school exit examination became mandatory almost three years ago. Plus, middle school dropouts are bound to increase now that students will be required to pass Algebra 1 just to reach high school.
What can schools do about this? For one thing, they can make far greater efforts to combat truancy. Students allowed to disappear without being tracked down are not likely ever to reappear. Schools can also offer differential diplomas, so students who meet all other graduation requirements but can’t pass the exit exam will have some reason to stay in school. And they can teach required subjects more intensively.
But the larger solutions will have to come outside the public school system. Many dropouts are apparently drawn away by gang activity, so new state efforts to counteract gang recruiting will have to play a role.
Teacher training will have to improve, too. The better the teachers are, the fewer of their students drop out. This factor will become even more important with the algebra mandate. Elementary and middle school teachers will need ever-stronger mathematics backgrounds if their students are not to drop out because of this new requirement.
And then there are parents. Parental involvement is the obvious reason dropout rates are far lower for both charter schools and private schools than in ordinary public schools. Whether by television commercials, outreach programs or some other means, more parents will have to take an interest in their kids’ education or the dropout crisis will continue indefinitely.
All of which means this is a crisis that will not go away soon, even if the immediate headlines fade away. It will take a sustained effort on many fronts over at least 10 years to make any significant dent in what has been properly called an educational catastrophe.