Disappearing students

Today, Tokofsky and Snell discuss the extent and ramifications of L.A. Unified’s dropout rate. Previously, they debated in low-performing campuses, the in improving public schools and the on public education. They’ll conclude their debate tomorrow with a discussion on breaking up L.A. Unified.

Choice and the drop-in problem
By David Tokofsky

As I have , choice is not the problem in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Far worse are the effects of unregulated choice: drop-ins, push-outs, pushovers and some dropouts, as well as mediocre charter and magnet schools. Equality, community and, most important, public school excellence in L.A. Unified are related directly to side effects of unaccountable choice. Choice does not in itself mean education quality. Indeed, liberty without equality or community can mean discrimination and perhaps inferior instruction and results. Nowhere is this more illustrated than the myriad dropout prevention and recovery options in California.

A February 2007 study by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office warned that nearly 15% of California’s high school students had fallen into or chosen continuation or opportunity schools, independent study, community day schools, adult General Education Development programs and other means to avoid the dropout label. In urban districts such as L.A. Unified, that number could be as high as 25%. The LAO found that although most of these programs actually prevented students from actually dropping out, they were neither rigorous nor accountable. Because California does not have a great database system for its students and districts, scholars rush to frame the debate as one about dropouts — if any number of ninth-grade kids at a high school were not there at graduation, they must have dropped out.


In its series on the subject last year, The Times reported a different fact: Most of the alleged dropouts reported in the series had not completely dropped out. Most had instead dropped into alternative education settings. Those programs need accountability reform, which is the subject of legislation proposed by state Sen. Darrell Steinberg (who was recently selected to the California Senate).

When I was a classroom teacher, I felt that these “stay ins” were in worse trouble and more numerous than dropouts. Kids who were not given rigorous and relevant curriculum or found a way to finish their U.S. history course in five weeks instead of 40 were being shortchanged academically. You almost wish they would just drop out, thereby forcing the system to confront the problem more dramatically. But we would lose our humanity by wishing the street on any adolescent.

So, Lisa, you and I should not want liberty and choice to be diluted by lack of accountability and professional responsibility. Parents sometimes stick to their choice of a really low-performing charter school. They chose the school rather than being assigned to a campus. They cling to a low-performing school in ways others trapped in ghetto sites would never do.

Nor should we want to see liberty exacerbate inequality. As a society, we don’t want to say that choosing home schooling is equal to the choice of applying, being accepted to and studying at L.A. Unified’s North Hollywood Gifted Magnet. Unrestricted choice without accountability is as dangerous an end as being a dropout.

Students in California’s alternative education and options programs know very well what the high school proficiency exam will tell them: They can barely pass a middle school English and math test. Of big concern to state legislators and parents alike is that alternative education sites are not listed on the state Academic Performance Index; they have a different system called the Alternative Schools Accountability Model. Their students may not be dropouts statistically, but state tests show that their capabilities are little better than dropouts’. Allowing students who were pushed out of large, over-crowded, year-round schools to smaller, more intimate settings does not necessarily ensure increased learning for kids any more than it does for those lost in big high schools.

The more pressing agenda is fixing our public schools by requiring professional responsibility and rigor as well as institutional accountability and results that meet our 21st century needs. These issues will not be solved by screaming about dropouts and saying that the solution is choice and small-school settings. That would be like the Reason Foundation saying that legalizing marijuana can solve America’s drug problems.

Lisa, I am waiting for you to exhale!

David Tokofsky was an L.A. Board of Education member for 12 years. Before that, he taught social studies and Spanish at John Marshall High School for 12 years.

L.A. Unified’s choices aren’t working
By Lisa Snell

The graduation rate for L.A. Unified is at 44%, according to Education Week. Even if you dispute these figures, we can in good faith say that less than 50% of students who enter high school in L.A. Unified graduate. The disadvantaged and minority student graduation rate is even lower. We are not talking about a few unmotivated students; rather, we are often talking about the majority of students at some Los Angeles high schools. One widely reported California Department of Education study, which included Crenshaw, Dorsey, Washington Prep and Manual Arts high schools, found that out of 3,902 freshmen in the class of 2002, about 60% dropped out. Of those who did graduate, about 55% did not attend college. Regardless of what data you choose, the graduation picture in Los Angeles is bleak.

I agree with you, David, that the continuation programs and alternative education programs need to be reformed. But the bottom line is that L.A. Unified does not serve the interests of most high school students. From parents who march on district headquarters to get charter schools in the neighborhoods served by Jefferson and Locke high schools, to smart students at Santee Education Complex who can’t get credit for their Advanced Placement classes, thousands of families are not getting the high school experience they deserve.

David, you are wrong about the number of high-quality choices available to these Los Angeles high school students. You are denying obvious evidence if you think that L.A. Unified provides enough choices for these students. The demand for choice in Los Angeles shows that the district’s offerings are not nearly enough. In the magnet system alone, the district can only serve about one out of four applicants. There are roughly 60,000 applicants for 15,000 spots. The magnet system now bears little resemblance to the district it serves. Magnet students, while somewhat ethnically diverse, are less likely than students at other district schools to come from poor families. Demand for high school slots at charter schools far exceeds the available capacity. The group of charter schools being served under the umbrella of the Inner City Education Foundation is the case in point. There are more than 6,000 students on waiting lists to enroll at View Park Preparatory high school. Similarly, high-performing high school charters such as Green Dot Public Schools and College Ready Academies all have waiting lists and must hold lotteries to determine enrollment. David, if L.A. Unified has so many choices, why are so many families desperate for an alternative?The obvious answer is that these families care about their students’ academic performance. Granted, not every charter is high-performing, but many offer disadvantaged students hope for both a successful graduation and the prospect of a college education. Inner City Education Foundation’s (ICEF) three View Park Prep charters are outperforming their nearest open-enrollment public schools (including one area magnet) by 141 points on California’s API. The middle and high schools are outperforming by 159 points and 180 point respectively. View Park Prep High School has a majority African American student body and an API of 721. See the high school comparison below to see the huge performance differences between View Park Prep and local high schools:

This performance is not unique to ICEF. Several other charter organizations — including Green Dot, College Ready Academies and the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) — are outperforming L.A. Unified high schools while serving disadvantaged students who are selected by lottery. As philanthropist Eli Broad recently noted in The Times, Green Dot, which operates 12 charter schools in Los Angeles, has an 80% graduation rate. Similarly, KIPP sends more than 80% of its alumni to college.The bottom line is that high school students need more choices. They need schools that are willing to intervene in the dropout trajectory even when students are challenging and poor. They need schools that are designed to defy the odds.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation.

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