Friday, August 19, 2011





For many years, it could have been standard to suggest that entering high school students look around their homerooms on the fall semester’s first day and notice everyone present. Because they could expect that one out of three of those students would not graduate with them.

Recession has brought a slight improvement to that dismal situation: Fewer openings in the menial job categories that attract many dropouts have meant that “only” about 30 percent, or three of every 10, youngsters lately have been leaving school early. Of course, that’s still not the officially reported rate.

Where are the missing students? Some are still able to get jobs flipping hamburgers, some wash cars, some are gang-bangers, some join the military, some are simply a question mark.

Even though it’s improved slightly, this remains the most serious problem facing both California and America. For even if California’s dropout rate is slightly higher than the rest of the nation, most other states would be close behind if their dropout reporting were as honest as California’s has become. If this continues and schools do nothing new to entice and encourage kids to pursue at least a high school diploma, we will have a large and permanent underclass of the uneducated illiterate.

When they become adults, not only will these individuals hold inferior, low-paying jobs – if they’re employed at all – but they will be unsophisticated thinkers who can be sold whatever bill of goods dishonest politicians and merchants of their time choose to purvey. It’s a sure-fire route to second-class stature as a state and nation.

Today’s honesty in dropout reporting, of course, is only partial, even if it’s a lot better than before. The state is now telling us how many students leave high school (about 18.2 percent of those who enter, a 3 percent improvement from last year's report), how many quit before they even get to high school (at least 3.5 percent of 8th grade kids – more than 17,000 youngsters – in the newest report, which doesn’t yet include 6th or 7th graders) and how many are leaving county-run schools for juvenile hall detainees, special needs children and students who have been expelled from other schools (more than 42,000 in 2008-9). County school dropouts are included in the overall high school figures.

But while the state Department of Education has become more above-board (previous state dropout reports never included middle schools and county programs), local school districts still prevaricate by leaving middle schools and county schools out of their figures, and the state has no power to compel honesty from them. Only local voters can do that, by pressing school board members to tell the truth.

The old estimate of one-third of students dropping out was reduced after the state instituted a computerized system in the middle of the last decade, assigning permanent identification numbers to all students enrolling anywhere in California. Kids keep their numbers even if they move to other districts, making it possible to track them. Tracking has cut the apparent high school dropout rate, although it still can’t account for students moving to other states.

Alan Bonsteel, a physician and head of a group called California Parents for Educational Choice, has pressed harder than anyone for accuracy in dropout reporting, if only to provide parents with more accurate assessments of public schools. He calls the newly-reported middle school dropout rate “earthshaking,” and it is.

For long history tells us that when almost one in every 10 children aged 11 to 14 years is probably leaving school before he or she can be taught very much, the underclass they become will often turn criminally violent. Meanwhile, budget cuts are knifing into most police forces.

Plainly, nothing will entirely eliminate dropouts. There will always be kids for whom school holds little or no appeal and some who just won’t learn. But it’s also clear the ongoing dropout crisis must be mitigated.

The first step should be making local school districts as honest as the state has become. Only when they reveal the full extent of their problems will voters focus attention and tax dollars on fixing them. But school boards don’t want to own up to their problems. So long as their own dropout figures don’t include middle school and county school figures, districts almost everywhere will crow about being “above average.” That’s dishonest.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to track these kids … from the schools where they started,” state Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson said last spring. He’s right.

The bottom line: While there’s been improvement in the dropout rate, largely because of the dismal economy, there will be little further lessening of dropouts unless and until local districts own up to how serious their problems are. Only then will they be forced to work at getting dropouts back in school and preventing existing students from quitting.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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