July 17, 2008

California’s Dropout Crisis

Finally, some credible, but bleak, numbers.

On the matter of high-school dropouts, there's some good news, and much, much more bad.

First, for the good: At last the state of California seems to have a coherent system for counting dropouts. In the past, the state's numbers were based largely on the unverified reports of individual school districts, which, naturally, had a vested interest in making the situation appear rosier than it really was.

For this reason, up until 1998, the California Department of Education maintained the fiction that the state's dropout rate was around 3.2 percent - a bogus statistic that any big-city high- school teacher would know to be false.

But in 2002, the state approved a new, high-tech system for keeping track of students: Each one is assigned a unique, yet non- personally identifiable, number. Using this system, districts can keep track of when students truly drop out, as opposed to merely moving or transferring to another school. As such, the new numbers ought to be far more accurate.

And that brings us to the bad news.

According to the latest calculations, some 24.2 percent of California students drop out of high school.

Compare that to last year's figure, under the old system of counting dropouts - 13 percent. That doesn't mean the number of dropouts has nearly doubled in one year, but it shows that there was massive under-reporting under the old system.

Now we know for certain what has long been evident: The state has been woefully underestimating the number of dropouts. By extension, it's also been underestimating the impact of the dropout crisis on the economy, on crime and on a wide range of other social problems.

What's more, the dire dropout numbers highlight just how troubled our schools really are.

For starters, the state's alarmingly high dropout rate reflects the unconscionable reality that hundreds of thousands of California children are not getting even the bare minimum high-school education that any decently paying job requires. Further, the dropout epidemic skews school test scores, thus diminishing our sense of just how badly so many of the state's schools are failing.

That's because, more often than not, a school's dropouts come from the ranks of its under-performing students. And when a failing student drops out, he or she no longer brings down the school's average test scores, giving the false impression that the school is educating most of its students, when it's merely watching them fall through the cracks.

The dropout rate for the Long Beach Unified School District nearly mirrors the state's at 24.6 percent, but district officials say that rate is really closer to 21 percent, and perhaps even as low as 17 percent when all the data is taken into account.

To combat the dropout rate, the Long Beach district sends counselors to students' homes to try to get them back in school. The four counselors have met with some success once they explain to dropouts that they have several options for continuing their education. Four counselors is a beginning, but it's obvious that more like 40 are needed. Until money is found for more counselors, peers and volunteers could help. Mentoring, by peers and adults, has a powerful effect on students who are confused or troubled about their prospects.

In Los Angeles, the situation is far more bleak. The L.A. Unified School District's dropout rate is 33.6 percent. That's better than the 50 percent dropout rate that many expected, but still well above the statewide average. It also means that more than one in three LAUSD high-school students never earn a diploma.

Knowledge, it's said, is power, and one can only hope that this new knowledge will empower the state to radically re-structure the education system so it better serves California students and families.

What's now beyond dispute is that California has a bona-fide dropout crisis. Our schools are failing in their most basic responsibility, which is to educate their students and prepare California's young people for the rigorous world economy in which they will need to compete.

And when the schools fail, other social pathologies follow - from drugs, to gangs, to financial struggles and a resulting dependence on public assistance.

24 percent dropout rate

Counselors can help

Focusing on real issue

For too long, a much-needed debate about dropouts has been supplanted by a debate on dropout-counting, with advocates from various educational factions squabbling over the best way to measure the problem, and quarreling over whose numbers were the most reliable.

If nothing else, maybe that's the real good news in the CDE's disappointing report. We need no longer bicker about how to count kids who drop out. Now it's time to figure out ways to stop them from dropping out in the first place. Knocking on the doors of dropouts and giving them encouragement is fine, but keeping them in school is much better. For that, school districts need many more counselors - professionals, peers and volunteers - who can help potential dropouts avoid making one of the worst decisions of their young lives.

(c) 2008 Press-Telegram Long Beach, CA.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.