Sunday, August 16, 2009




California has a budget crisis as bad as any state’s and it has a water
crisis that’s nearly unique. But no California crisis can match the dropout crisis.

For most of the last 10 years, this column and a very few other news outlets reported that the high school dropout rate in California was about one-third, even while school districts reported much smaller rates. That is, of every nine students who enrolled in middle school in any given fall, about three would disappear before their purported high school graduation day rolled around.

It turns out this grotesque dropout rate is very real. The actual rate today is likely very close to 33 percent, three out of nine. That includes students who drop out before they reach high school. It also includes those who make brief pit stops in continuation schools and then disappear.

This disgrace is one reason so many California companies import skilled labor from other countries, leaving large numbers of native-born Californians in low-paid, unskilled jobs. It’s one reason for a recent forecast that this state’s companies will need to bring in millions of foreign workers by 2020 just to keep current industries running, let alone new businesses.

California’s public schools largely ignored their shameful performance until last year. But it’s notable that the dropout rate last fall at charter high schools was significantly less than in ordinary public schools. That may be at least partly because almost all charter schools have waiting lists, with eager parents trying hard to shoe-horn their kids in. Parental involvement has always been the best insurance against dropouts.

But at Locke High School in Los Angeles, the lone charter high school in this state that accepts everyone in its attendance area, 85 percent of students from the previous year turned up last fall, about 15 percent higher than the year before the school went charter.

What more telling indictment of a public school could there be than when a nightmarish 15 percent dropout rate from one year to the next actually constitutes a major improvement?

State school officials began taking this problem seriously only two years ago. Until then, they had little information on how many students disappear from the education system.

But last year, they admitted to a 21 percent high school dropout rate, and this year they say it was 20.1 percent. The lobbying group California Parents for Educational Choice claims to have found a simple math error that would raise the official rate to about 25 percent, not counting middle school dropouts.

The state Education Department hopes to grow more precise in tracking students, with every pupil from the kindergarten level on up now assigned a 10-digit number. Before this system began, school districts could downplay their apparent dropout rates by claiming many students had moved to other schools. Now students can be tracked even when they transfer hundreds of miles from where they begin school, so long as they stay in state.

“We get certain identifying information from all of them when they register in a new school, so even if they don’t know their number, we can properly identify them,” says Keric Ashley, the Education Department’s chief data manager.

This year’s rates still don’t include junior high and middle school dropouts, but State Schools Supt. Jack O’Connell promises that will begin next fall. Official state dropout figures then should come much closer to reflecting what is really happening.

Make no mistake, what’s happening is a tragedy of epic proportions. Its human consequences dwarf those of the budget and water crises, serious as they are.

For when at least one-quarter and possibly as many as 35 percent of high school-age Californians are dropping out of school, a huge segment of this state’s future populace is condemning itself to a second-class adult life. “Over a lifetime, dropouts have lower earnings, worse health, higher rates of incarceration, a host of problems,” O’Connell says, calling the current reported rate “unacceptable.”

Perhaps one way to help reduce the problem would be granting differential diplomas to students who meet all other graduation requirements, but repeatedly fail the high school exit exam. While state officials maintain the exam has not increased dropouts, there is copious anecdotal information to the contrary, with many dropouts saying they left out of frustration and a feeling that since they couldn’t pass the exit test, why stay when they would never get a diploma?

Giving two levels of diplomas would at least end this motive for leaving, while still recognizing students who do pass the exam.

But that’s only a small part of the problem. With dropout rates as high as they are, it’s time to evaluate all curriculum and all teachers at all levels. O’Connell calls this “the new three R’s. We need to improve our rigor, relevance and relationships with our students.”

And because parents are the real key to solving this problem, a major advertising campaign and community organizing effort aiming to motivate them to keep their kids in school should quickly become a top state priority.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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