July 19, 2008

Editorial Dropout Crisis L.A., California Schools Are Badly Failing Students and the Public

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 obvious 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, wherein each one is assigned a unique, yet nonpersonally identifiable number. Using this system, districts can now 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 with last year's figure -- 13 percent -- under the old system of counting dropouts. That doesn't mean the number of dropouts has nearly doubled in one year; it shows that there was massive underreporting under the old system.

And 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 today 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 underperforming 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 really, it's merely watching them fall through the cracks.

Here in Los Angeles, the situation is even more bleak. While the state's dropout rate is a sad 24.2 percent, the L.A. Unified School District's comes in at a miserable 33.6 percent.

That's better than the 50 percent dropout rate that many feared, but still well above the statewide average (which would be even lower if the LAUSD's numbers didn't force it up). 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 and the LAUSD to radically restructure the education system so it better serves California students and families.

What's now beyond dispute is that California in general, and the LAUSD in particular, have 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.

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.

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