Staying Power

What's behind the declining dropout rates?

Recent school reforms are having an effect. Kids are staying in school. “The dropout rate continued its steady decline last year, falling to 3.3 percent statewide and 2.5 percent in Orange County,” reported John Gittelsohn in a recent Register news story. The current rate is half that of a decade ago.

However, the good news is mixed with the realization that the data isn’t complete – and likely never can be. According to the Register story, “[S]chool officials cannot explain why the total number of high school dropouts is exceeded just by the number of students failing to move from 11th to 12th grade.”

The students move to other schools, adult schools and alternative education programs. After all, this is California, where families move in and out at a rapid pace. Hispanic and other families sometimes return to their home countries.

The inexact numbers are “one of the problems we have as part of tracking,” Marian Bergeson, secretary of the California Office of Child Development and Education, told us. “On the one hand, you must protect privacy. On the other hand, you lose track of some students. There’s no way of tracking those kids absolutely.” However, she believes the reduced dropout number does indicate that schools are doing a better job of keeping students interested in their studies. “Some of the increase is attributable to the alternative programs” – such as charter schools – “that have provided a greater competition and choice among the schools. Parents are becoming more aware, and family involvement is increasing.” She sees the anticipated increase in the number of charter schools, which are designed to boost academics, giving both parents and children more say in how schools are run, and hence a reason for the students to keep up attendance.

The booming economy of recent years, with double-digit unemployment of the recession of the early 1990s dropping to 6 percent statewide and as low as 3 percent in Orange County, is helping as well. “With the economy moving along as well as it is, many kids don’t have to drop out of school to support their families,” Ms. Bergeson said.

Can the improved attendance numbers be sustained? A key test will come this August and September when the new academic standards adopted by the state Board of Education are implemented. “The lower dropout rate may simply reflect easier social promotions,” Lance Izumi told us; he’s co-director of the Center for Innovation in Education at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. “Or the schools are really designed to graduate kids who aren’t ready to graduate. That’s behind the resistance of the hard, new standards in reading and math that the state Board of Education is handing out. Perhaps those attendance numbers might change” for the worse once the new standards are fully implemented. “Those standards are supposed to take effect sometime this year,” Mr. Izumi said. “But of course there’s been resistance by a lot of the local school districts over implementing them. So it’ll be real trench war whether those standards will be implemented or not.”

That trench warfare will be conducted alongside the battle already enjoined, of course, on Proposition 227, which voters passed Tuesday and which essentially bans bilingual education. Already, 227 is being challenged in court by some bilingual ed advocates. But if or when the courts give an OK to 227, its implementation could improve attendance figures. According to Assemblyman Tom McClintock, Republican of Simi Valley, bilingual ed delays the teaching of English to immigrant children, giving them little reason to stay in school. “Hispanic children are the primary victims of [bilingual ed],” he wrote in a Register Op-Ed column, “and it should come as no surprise that they grow into teen-agers with the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group in California.”

If Prop. 227 meets court muster and works as advertised, it could reduce dropout rates by teaching kids English early and so giving them a reason to stick around for further studies.

What’s for certain is that this fall will be the most interesting in decades for California’s public schools.

What will be the impact of the new standards? Of possible changes in bilingual ed?

Both could have lasting effects on a very basic measure of classroom efficacy, attendance.

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