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Figuring out dropouts

California finally has a realistic picture of its high-school dropout rate, and it isn’t pretty. Close to a fourth of our students fail to graduate, far more than the state has been reporting to the federal government. The number for Latino students rises to 30%, and for African American youngsters, it’s nothing less than dismal: 41.6%. The figures make clear that the dropout problem isn’t limited to pockets of the state; it is a cloud over all of California that threatens our civic and economic future.

Before today, the dropout rate was a matter of guesswork and numbers games. The state officially reported about 14%, though that number was widely acknowledged to be too low. The Los Angeles Unified School District put its numbers at about a third, while Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, working from a Harvard University study, regularly proclaimed that half the district’s students dropped out. (It turned out that the district had it right.) This year, for the first time, the state used student identification numbers to track those who went missing. And as unhappy as we are with the resulting figures, the state Department of Education deserves credit for ferreting out the truth.

The data are available online at https://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/. Dropouts are defined as students who left school and are not known to be enrolled in other programs that lead to a diploma. Not counted are those who can’t be tracked, such as students who say they’re leaving the state or attending a private school.

Despite some of the rhetoric in the accountability movement, the dropout rates are not entirely the fault of public schools. Teachers cannot put an end to gangs or mend troubled families or solve poverty; yet all of these are elements of academic failure. The job of preparing a new generation is daunting; it will require a comprehensive approach that addresses health and welfare issues as well as educational ones.

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But schools can and in some cases do make a big difference. San Jose Unified School District, for example, is an urban district with a 13% dropout rate. Yet despite the common wisdom that higher standards prompt more teenagers to drop out, San Jose pushes all of its students to complete a college-prep curriculum. Its Latino students are nearly twice as likely to do so as their counterparts across California, and their dropout rate, at 19.5%, is more than 10 points lower than the statewide figure and 15 points lower than L.A. Unified’s.

High school dropouts always had bleaker futures than their more educated brethren, but that is especially true now. The better-paid trades require more education than before. Auto mechanics use computers as well as wrenches. Today, at least, the state has a grasp of the challenge at hand, a baseline to work from and examples of success to guide it forward.


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