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L.A. Schools’ Silent Scandal ...

It took a study last month by the Education Trust-West, a policy and advocacy group for disadvantaged students, to show conclusively that, even within the same districts, California schools spend less money on poor and minority students. Now, a Harvard report reveals that dropout rates among black and Latino students in California are substantially higher than the state has been reporting. What else don’t we know about our schools?

Confronted with the data on Los Angeles schools -- where a shockingly low 39% of Latino students and 47% of African Americans graduate on time -- school officials offered excuses identical to those they used regarding those students’ inability to read: They’re poor, their parents don’t get involved, the culture works against them. But the district also has almost the state’s highest dropout rates of white and Asian students.

If the Army was losing people as fast as the Los Angeles schools, generals would lose their stars and the Defense secretary his job. In part, the outcry over schools has been muted by their legerdemain in calculating dropout rates -- and their lack of transparency in explaining how they use their money.

While the school reform movement has emphasized test scores, neither state nor federal officials have put teeth into demands for lower dropout rates. As it happens, the push for higher test scores has at times coincided with counselors advising failing students to leave. It’s a scandal, but a shushed one because dropouts make the schools look better while harming communities and businesses and filling prisons, as the Harvard study all too sharply shows.

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Microsoft founder Bill Gates has made major press lately with his gripe that high schools need to adopt a more rigorous, college-bound curriculum. That doesn’t address the crisis. Few of the dropouts are complaining about their college preparation.

The nation still needs its plumbers (try outsourcing that to India) and mechanics -- hands-on jobs that interest many otherwise disengaged students. Yet vocational education has made only tiny comebacks here and there. These programs help keep students in high school and, a bonus, give them a practical reason to learn academic subjects.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, long a trusted advisor to President Bush, should be using her position to urge increased funding for vocational education instead of the cuts the administration proposes. And if Spellings were to give dropout rates the same weight as test scores under No Child Left Behind, educators would be working a lot harder to keep kids in school. The Education secretary also should make the system for tracking dropouts far more rigorous. Start by requiring that schools do more to find out what happens to students who stop showing up.

Any school, large or small, can connect better with kids -- if each counselor is given a caseload of fewer than thousands of students. Because school districts are spending less on the salaries of the less-experienced teachers at schools attended by poor and minority students, they should be required to even up the score with more counselors at these campuses. Given a realistic workload, counselors should meet tough standards for acting as student advocates and forging relationships with parents. Teachers should also be part of the solution, but has anyone asked them for their ideas lately?

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The study itself raises bigger issues about the rigidity of school systems that designate as dropouts anyone who doesn’t graduate by the expected month of the expected year. But who said high school has to end in four years?

The superintendent of the Santa Ana schools has proposed both a fifth year of high school and a two-year kindergarten for students who need the extra boost. He has parental support for the proposals -- in a district that’s more than 90% Latino, the very parents who supposedly don’t get involved in their children’s education. A budget crisis kept both ideas from fruition, but at least a door was opened.


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