by María "Cuca" Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.
On October 31, 1986, IDRA completed and published the Texas School Dropout Survey Project. The seven-volume work, commissioned by the State of Texas, was the first statewide study of dropouts and was released in Austin at a gathering of educators, policymakers and community members.
As principal investigator for the study, I provided the gathering with key findings: many, many young people were dropping out of Texas schools, most schools reported no plans to address the fact that one out of three students were leaving school before obtaining a high school diploma, and the costs of undereducation to dropouts, their families and the state were enormous.
The cost analyses conducted as part of that study indicated that education is a good investment: every dollar invested in education resulted in a nine-dollar return. (Cárdenas, Robledo and Supik, 1986)
The 1986 study had an immediate effect on policy and practice. State policy requiring dropout data collection and reporting was passed in April 1987. As a result, data collection systems were put into place at the Texas Education Agency. The first report by TEA (1988) pointed to a statewide longitudinal dropout rate of 34 percent. Also, as a result of new state policy and regulation following the IDRA study, most school districts identified dropout prevention coordinators and developed dropout plans.
However, focused resources and productive actions attendant to assuring that schools in Texas increase their ability to hold students through to high school graduation were short-lived. Instead, resources and actions went to explaining away the problem by blaming students or families and by lowering the dropout counts through changes in dropout definitions. The results are evident.
Our latest attrition study indicates that 137,000 Texas students, or 35 percent of the freshman class of 2002-03, left school before graduating in the 2005-06 school year. In the last 20 years, the racial-ethnic school holding power gap has widened with attrition rates increasing for Hispanic students and Black students while decreasing for White students. At the same time that the gap in schools’ ability to hold on to minority versus White students has widened, minority youngsters have become the majority of the school-aged population in Texas schools. (For more information on IDRA’s October 1986 Texas School Dropout Survey Project, the October 2006 study results, and trends in yearly attrition data over the last 20 years, see Page 3.)
These statistics are not new to the many educators and community members who are committed to equity and excellence for all students. What is new is a palpable sense of public awareness of the dropout problem in Texas and the nation, and a growing political will to address it.
In recent months, we have seen new national-level attention to the issue, such as the President’s High School Initiative, a bipartisan attempt to promote national graduation-for-all policy, and the National Governors Association’s compact to develop consistent state-level data.
We have seen new foundation investment in combining school reform with citizen awareness campaigns, such as StandUp!, a public will campaign funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Media coverage, including the coordinated release in April 2006 of a two-part segment aired on the Oprah Winfrey Show and a cover story in Time magazine, have brought new attention to what has been called "the high school dropout crisis in America."
And we have seen a sharpened focus on the problem by a wide array of research institutes, non-profit organizations, coalitions and networks. Reports from the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the Harvard Civil Rights Project, the American Diploma Project Network, and the Alliance for Excellent Education are underscoring the magnitude of the problem and strengthening a knowledge base.
This level of dramatically heightened attention presents a historic opportunity for a sea change in Texas and in the nation’s recognition of the problem and willingness to address it. But that moment can fade or make little difference for schools and for students.
To seize the moment and produce results, it is important to learn from the past as we engage citizens, develop public policy and promote truly accountable schooling (see "From ‘Dropping Out’ to ‘Holding On’ – Seven Lessons from Texas," by Robledo Montecel, April 2004).
It is also important to work from what we know about schools. To graduate students who are prepared for later life, IDRA research indicates that schools must have: (1) competent caring teachers who are paid well and are supported in their work, (2) consistent ways to partner with parents and engage the local communities to whom they account, (3) ways to really know students and have students know that they belong, and (4) high quality, enriched and accessible curriculum (Robledo Montecel, 2005).
Schools and the communities to which they belong, need consistent, credible data sets that assess graduation data in relationship to quality teaching, parent-community engagement, student engagement and high quality curriculum.
To respond to this need for actionable knowledge at the local level, IDRA’s Graduation Guaranteed/Graduación Garantizada initiative is piloting a web-based portal that can be used by community-school partners as they craft a shared vision; assess local needs and assets; identify proven practices that strengthen school holding power; develop ways to implement, monitor and evaluate local actions plans; and build inclusive enduring partnerships to sustain momentum and action.
Losing children, particularly poor and minority children, from our school systems before high school graduation has been and is today a defining feature of education in the United States. The feature and its assumption that fewer students will graduate than started in the ninth grade and even fewer children will graduate than started in kindergarten is built into teacher hiring practices, into ways in which schools deal with parents and communities, into whether and how schools connect with kids, and into curriculum decisions about which courses will be offered and to whom. Student attrition is built into facilities planning and funding decisions. It is time to change.
Not too long ago, it seemed unreasonable to think that this country would have universal education through elementary school. It is now time that we make high school graduation and college readiness the new minimum. The economics of undereducation demand it. Our children deserve no less.
Cárdenas, J.A., and M. del Refugio Robledo, J.D. Supik. Texas School Dropout Survey Project (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1986).
Robledo Montecel. M. "From ‘Dropping Out’ to ‘Holding On’ – Seven Lessons from Texas," IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 2004).
Robledo Montecel, M. "A Quality Schools Action Framework: Framing Systems Change for Student Success," IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).
María "Cuca" Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the IDRA executive director. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at
[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]