Dropout deluge

Official dropout statistics are lowballed almost everywhere, people are starting to get serious about the real, very high, failure rates. In California, the best guess is that 30 percent of students drop out. A select committee in the state Senate is looking at ways to boost graduation rates.

Increasing the availability of college-prep classes is one proposal among the five bills (Sen. Darrell) Steinberg is pushing as part of his dropout prevention agenda. Fewer than half of California high schools now offer enough college-prep classes to allow all students to participate in the curriculum, according to UCLA researchers.

The other bills in his package would:

• Expand the number of high school students who simultaneously enroll in community college. More community colleges would be able to grant high school diplomas under Senate Bill 218.

• Change the way the state calculates the academic performance index, or API, with Senate Bill 219. In addition to reflecting student test scores, the API for each high school also would indicate how many students dropped out, the test scores of students re-assigned to alternative schools, the availability of college-prep courses and what kinds of jobs graduates hold.

• Offer more help to struggling middle schoolers. Schools would be required to provide interventions to students in sixth through ninth grades who fail a class or miss more than 10 days in one semester.

• Limit which high school students could hold jobs. Students would have to maintain a C-average and an 80 percent attendance record to receive a work permit from their school.

Starting help in middle school and denying work permits to teenagers with poor grades and attendance could make a difference.

The API idea sounds way too complicated: How should jobs held by graduates be evaluated? How many years after graduation? But I’d like to see a way to prevent high schools from boosting their scores by dumping their worst students into alternative programs, though I’m not sure how to do it. This is very, very common.

I don’t see how adding college-prep classes would prevent students from dropping out. And students already can take community college classes for high school credit. Many pre-dropouts aren’t motivated by the prospect of college. They could be motivated by vocational programs good enough to qualify them for decent jobs or apprenticeships.

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  1. I agree with your suggestions. The kids who drop out because they are bored and need more rigorous instruction at the high school level make a pretty small group, I think.

    (Although it’s surprising that the article gives the impression that seats in college prep classes are limited. Is that really the case or is it a reflection of the classes kids choose to enroll in? You aren’t going to offer enough college prep classes for everyone if everyone isn’t choosing to enroll in them, are you? We create the classes based on what the kids sign up for where I am.)

    I’m open to the possibility that more rigorous instruction all along with less social promotion (or whatever it is that let’s kids get to high school without the skills they need) might reduce the drop out rate. But pretending to add rigor in high school to retain people who for the most part aren’t academically successful in their present placement seems nuts.

    If we had a good vocational track that gave kids useful skills, then maybe we could expect more to graduate. But the idea that somehow everyone could complete a college prep. track (without dumbing it down to the point that colleges had to dumb down too) is crazy.

  2. wayne martin says:

    The visibility of drop-out data has been elevated by NCLB, but the data has been available on the US.DoE NCES WEB-site (or Bulletin Board) for a long time, just buried in a mountain of other data that seems a lot less important than the dropout rates.

    The coming of longitudinal student tracking systems will help to further clarify these numbers. Federal Funding of these programs would be a good idea.

    Several of the proposals in the CA Legislature seem to be ignoring the fundamental issues as to why kids drop out. Adding AP classes can hardly be an enticement to a student who is having trouble reading. Restoring Vocational tracts, or providing vouchers to these kids to find training in a private-sector source, would probably have more positive effect on keeping kids in school than more AP classes.

    The Legislative proposals reinforce the notion that politicians are detached from the realities of the education system.

  3. Well, the voters ought to fix ’em next election cycle.

  4. Indigo Warrior says:

    Starting help in middle school and denying work permits to teenagers with poor grades and attendance could make a difference.

    That is exactly the opposite of what needs to be done.

    Really, dropouts by themselves are not a bad thing. After all, Bill Gates was a dropout. Some actually turn out to be successful rather than wasting tax money going nowhere in schools. And that bit about denying work permits – you might as well build Berlin Walls around government schools (which already have too much coercion) and hire former Stasi thugs as truant officers!

    The kids who drop out for being too dumb (sorry, I meant academically challenged) need to find some sort of career that maximizes their talents rather than have to endure more academia. There are plenty of such careers, and simple vocational training can open up more. As for the kids who drop out for being too smart; these are smart enough to find their own destiny, maybe in a private school geared toward their talents, or in business.

  5. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, not high school.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    There are restrictions on which high school students can take community college classes. Only 10% of students at a high school can take classes, only juniors and seniors can take classes, and the number of credits a student can earn is restricted.

    I think those restrictions ought to be eliminated, but I doubt that it would make any change in the dropout rate. It would help homeschoolers, though. Plenty of homeschoolers are ready for community colleges at age 14 or 15. Right now, those homeschoolers lie in order to register for community college class, but it would be nice if they didn’t have to.

  7. GradSchoolMom says:

    Educational statistics say that only about 10% of our nation’s young adults between the ages of 25-29 do not have a high school diploma. That indicates that many dropouts are returning for their GED. I guess we would need to verify how many of those GEDs are being awarded in prison, but I question whether the bottom 10% of any country can earn a high school diploma and how much of a difference that degree would make in their lives. Education is gift. Perhaps if we start treating like that rather than as a law, more people would begin to want one.

  8. According to Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute, about 71 percent of young adults earn a regular high school diploma; another 15 percent get a GED.

    GED holders earn somewhat more than drop-outs but less than regular high school graduates. Employers strongly favor the diploma because it indicates the ability to get along with others, follow rules, etc.

  9. Your last point about what people value in the high school diploma over the GED is one of the key reasons that I don’t think we’ll every see a super high percentage of people getting diplomas, and if we do, they’ll be so useless in predicting skills or aptitude that they will be useless.

    I do think that if we used better methods all the way through school, we could lift the graduation rate higher than it is today and still have it indicate a basic competence.

    But instead of evaluating the methods being used to teach, schools are tinkering with the systems teachers use to grade because, hey, if you pass all your classes, you’ll graduate on time as long as you pass a very basic graduation test.

    I don’t know of any school that has said, let’s reexamine the way we teach reading because we have too many kids failing English. Instead, they say: teachers, you can give no grade lower than a 50. You need to have “zap zeros” days on which you let the kids get credit for any work that they didn’t do when it was assigned (which teaches some bad lessons and probably doesn’t do that much to increase learning if they are doing all the homework and classwork from August in December, and the August homework was practice and preparation for a test they took in September).

    You’d like to think that this wouldn’t affect how hard the kids work in a negative way. You might think they were happy to have additional opportunities to take satisfaction in a job well done. But no, it teaches kids that they can do even less and still earn a passing (or even good) grade.

  10. Indigo Warrior says:

    It’s more a case of tradition than objective analysis of fact that makes employers prefer high school diplomas to GEDs. The kind of employers that value unthinking obedience so much might as well hire graduates of dog obedience schools.