Framing Systems Change for Student Success

María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.

The pipeline, or path, from pre-kindergarten to high school graduation and success in higher education, is marked by cracks and disjunctures. IDRA’s InterAction forums in late 2004 and early 2005 reaffirmed that, in many cases, students experience no connection between early education and secondary school, much less between high school graduation and higher education (see article entitled: “InterAction” Needed from All Sectors to Support College Access and Success).

Without strong connections in the education pipeline, too few Texas students transition from secondary schools to four-year universities; fewer still are prepared to go on to earn bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees. As an indispensable conduit to college, graduation with a diploma, backed by an excellent education, must be a focal point for systems change. It also must be central to any efforts for reform, as the problem of student attrition is not only longstanding, but growing.

IDRA released its 19th statewide attrition study for Texas this past October, using the same methodology developed for its inaugural baseline study in 1986. The study reveals a grim picture. The latest attrition rate of 36 percent is higher than the original rate of 33 percent that alarmed so many community and education leaders almost two decades ago. IDRA’s latest attrition study shows that Texas high schools lose one out of every three students before they graduate. Since 1986, schools in Texas have lost a total of more than 2.2 million students. In sum, one student in Texas is lost to attrition every four minutes (see October 2005 issue of the IDRA Newsletter).

Attrition rates among Hispanic students were higher in 1986 than they were for any other group and have increased over the last 19 years, from 45 percent to 49 percent – one student out of two. During this same period, the attrition rates for Black students have increased even more, from 34 percent to 44 percent.

This is not to suggest that for White students attrition should go unnoticed. While attrition rates of White students have declined from 27 percent to 22 percent, this rate still represents roughly one White student in five who does not graduate.

At these rates, Texas and other states are not only leaving children behind, but, as the Harvard Civil Rights Project has said in a recent report on dropouts, we are “losing our future” (Orfield, et al., 2004).

For those students who do graduate, only one out of five enrolls in a Texas public university the following fall. Thirteen out of 19 public universities in Texas graduate less than half of their students; six graduate less than a third. This picture is not very different across the country.

If Texas continues on this course, education cannot fulfill its promise as a path to opportunity for all; instead it represents a vanishing future.

A Framework for Action

Clearly, to achieve different results, we must envision a dramatically different process and undertake a new strategy. IDRA has begun to outline one such process, a Quality Schools Action Framework (see figure below), described in this article. We are examining its usefulness through IDRA’s ongoing collaboration with communities and schools to assure that all children have access to quality neighborhood public schools.

The Quality Schools Action Framework is based on experience and empirical evidence that emerges from existing theories of change. These models suggest that because schools operate as complex, dynamic systems, lasting systems change depends on sustained action within and outside of those systems. Research on best practices of high performing schools, for example, has examined the links among a constellation of indicators (e.g., teaching quality and effective school governance; parent engagement and student success). Less examined, however, are the contextual and moderating factors that may impede or accelerate school system change. The Quality Schools Action Framework aims to bridge this gap.

The framework offers a model for assessing school conditions and outcomes, identifying leverage points for improvement, and informing action. In essence, the framework poses five key questions: (1) What do we need? (2) How do we make change happen? (3) Which fundamentals must be secured? (4) Where do we focus systems change? and (5) What outcomes will result?

The framework draws on both current research and knowledge of the field. It also seeks to be intuitive and reflect common sense. It is widely recognized, for example, that students are far more likely to succeed when they have the chance to work with highly qualified, committed teachers, using effective, accessible curricula; when their parents and communities are engaged in their education; and when they, themselves, are engaged in their learning. We also know that effective schools depend on good governance to guide their success and on fair funding to effectively serve all of their students each school day.

What is less well understood is which change strategies and school and community capacities will ensure that schools as systems can hold on to all students and secure their success. The Quality Schools Action Framework zeroes in on three key strategies: first, building community capacity to strengthen schools; second, creating coalitions and action networks that amplify parent and community voices, work and impact; and third and essentially, building school capacity to ensure that every child receives an excellent education. To have lasting impact, these kinds of strategic action are needed at local, state and federal levels. At every level, powerful levers are the key to initiating change.

In physics, levers apply mechanical force to move or lift heavy objects. Like crowbars, wheelbarrows and pliers, levers give people a “mechanical advantage” to accomplish work that might at first seem far beyond their capacity and strength. Engaged citizens, who actively express their concern for the quality of education and are engaged as partners in school improvement, play a critical role. Accountable leadership that recognizes that schools belong to the communities they serve and that fully and consistently reports and takes stock of school performance, is an essential lever. Actionable knowledge – clear, quality data – gives education and community leaders the information they need to make good decisions about school policy and practice. Enlightened public policy, which provides both the appropriate standards and resources schools need to serve all children, is also an indispensable lever for change.

Quality Schools Action Framework

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Using the Framework for Increasing School Holding Power

In assessing student outcomes for secondary schools, the Quality Schools Action Framework suggests that we consider two key indicators: school holding power and student success. School holding power refers to the ability of schools to guarantee graduation for all students. Student success refers to the academic preparation both to graduate with a diploma and to graduate prepared for college access and success. Following this approach, any plan to increase school holding power must begin with a review of student outcomes and, if needed, have us redefine our goals.

It has never been the case in the history of this country that most minority students graduated from quality high schools or from any type of high school. It has never been the case that schools prepared every student to succeed in college or in a good job that sustains them, their families and their communities. Further, it has never been the case that all sectors – communities, business owners, public officials and the voters who elect them – demanded a quality education for all students.

To date, the goal of dropout prevention has been damage control. Trying to lower the dropout rate bit by bit is considered the best that can be done. This seems rather reasonable given the fact that Texas, for example, has never even been in the ballpark of the 95 percent graduation rate set by the State Board of Education back in the 1980s.

Not too long ago, however, it seemed unreasonable to think that this country would have universal education through elementary school. It was not until the mid-19th century that states began to enact compulsory attendance legislation, and even these laws only called for children to attend school for three months of the year. Many states did not require that children attend elementary school until the early 20th century.

And the gap between required attendance and available public schooling was great. Until the 1950s, education beyond the third grade was neither expected nor accessible for many children. In less than one hundred years, the nation has come to unquestioningly view elementary school as a universal prerequisite.

High school is the new educational minimum. Why is it unreasonable now to think that Texas and the nation can have universal education through high school? Former U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Alexis Herman has said: “This is a labor market that will be unforgiving to those persons without the necessary skills. To compete in a global marketplace, a high school diploma is just the beginning” (U.S. Department of Labor, 2003). Half of our nation’s 20 fastest-growing occupations require not a high school diploma but an associate or bachelor’s degree just to get in the door. In this economy, in this global market, graduation guaranteed – 100 percent graduation – is the only reasonable goal.

Strengthening Schools as Systems

It is obviously not enough just to set a new goal. In Texas, the official 95 percent graduation goal has produced no result. Across the country, despite laudable goals, many children are still left behind. Nationally, the highest poverty schools and schools with the highest concentrations of minority students have nearly double the proportion of inexperienced teachers as schools with the lowest poverty rate (20 percent vs. 11 percent) and the lowest concentration of minority students (21 percent vs. 11 percent) (NCES, 2000).

Segregated minority schools are far more likely to be low wealth schools, characterized by less qualified teachers (Orfield, et al., 2004).

To move from good intentions to good results, the Quality Schools Action Framework would have us examine schools as systems and to identify and address system factors, such as these, in need of change.

Dropout prevention programs, even the most effective ones, have never been able to address widespread attrition. While these programs can make a profound difference for the specific students they serve, they are simply not designed to transform school systems. Also ineffective have been approaches that tacitly or directly blame parents, students or their backgrounds for crisis-level attrition. These biases not only further disengage students who might already feel marginalized by educational systems, but discredit a schools’ significant capacity to serve a diverse population of students.
Emphasizing school and community capacity building, student, parent and family engagement and a systems-based approach, the Quality Schools Action Framework avoids silver bullet solutions and moves toward a comprehensive approach.

To graduate students who are prepared for later life, schools need competent caring teachers who are well-paid and supported in their work. Quality teaching is defined by the preparation of teachers and the placement of teachers in their field of study. Teaching is informed by continual professional development. Quality teaching also refers to the practices that teachers use in the classroom to deliver comprehensible instruction that prepares all students to meet academic goals and ensures that no child is left behind or drops out of school.

To increase holding power, schools need consistent ways in which to partner with parents and engage the communities to which they belong. Effective parent and community engagement builds partnerships based on respect and a shared goal of academic success for every child. Engagement depends on the meaningful integration of parents and community members into the decision-making processes of schools.

Student engagement is also integral to any plan to reduce attrition. System-wide, schools need ways to get to know students and in turn, to have students know that they belong. Schools need the capacity to create environments and activities that value students of all backgrounds and to incorporate them into the learning process and other social activities within the school, with academic achievement as a result.

School systems that strengthen holding power depend on a high quality, enriched and accessible curriculum. Curriculum quality and access encompasses the educational programs of study, materials and other learning resources – such as technology – and their accessibility. It also relates to the fair and unbiased assessment of students and the degree to which schools take responsibility for the academic success of all students.

To have these basic features, school systems must secure two fundamentals: the resources to effectively serve all students and good governance that facilitates academic achievement and success. Governance efficacy strengthens school holding power when administrative and supervisory personnel have the capacity to deliver quality educational services to all students, along with the policymaking and pro-active support of a school board to hold on to every student. Fair funding is a lynchpin of school success, as it assures that school districts have equitable resources to support a quality educational program for all students.

Strengthening Community Capacity

But to make anything happen, citizens across diverse sectors must reconnect for reform. To address high school attrition, the Quality Schools Action Framework would have us examine how communities, leaders and policymakers can use actionable knowledge on attrition to inform and leverage change. The framework would have us examine how to reconnect communities and strengthen coalitions for reform.

Parents and communities have played vital roles in every school reform effort – from fighting for fair funding to making sure that students are not ignored or punished because of the language they speak. As partners in education and catalysts for education policy and funding reform, their role can be critical to helping local neighborhood schools turn the tide of student attrition.

If students are to reach the halls and classrooms of colleges and universities, stakeholders must consider schools as systems and reforms must span the education pipeline. Looking back one length in this line, if students are to enter and succeed in institutions of higher learning, they must be well-prepared and graduating with a diploma from high school. The Quality Schools Action Framework can be used to make sure that schools are places where all children can and do succeed.

Resources

Johnson, R.L. “Little Improvement in Texas School Holding Power – Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2004-05,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2005).

National Center for Education Statistics. (Washington, D.C.: NCES, Dec. 2000) pg. 14.

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Measuring Up – The State Report Card on Higher Education (San Jose, California: NCPPHE, 2004).

Orfield, G., and D. Losen, J. Wald, C. Swanson. Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis (The Harvard Civil Rights Project & The Urban Institute, 2004).

U.S. Department of Labor. Tomorrow’s Jobs (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2003) http://stats.bls.gov/oco/oco2003.htm.

María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the IDRA executive director. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

The Price of Attrition

The social and economic costs of attrition reverberate throughout communities. Children pay an inestimable price in lost opportunity. They lose not only the path to college access and success but also to good jobs and open futures. The loss is not abstract.

Overall, as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2003, high school dropouts are 72 percent more likely to be unemployed than high school graduates. A high school dropout earns about $260,000 less over a lifetime than a high school graduate.

When individuals have few opportunities, families and communities also suffer. Texas also pays a price, compromising its claim to fair play, diminishing civic life, and weakening its economy. The Measuring Up report concludes that if all ethnic groups in Texas had the same educational attainment and earnings as Whites, total personal income in Texas would be about $31.4 billion higher, and the state would realize an estimated $11 billion in additional Texas revenues.

By losing 2.2 million students to attrition over the last 19 years, Texas loses almost half a trillion dollars in foregone income, lost tax revenues, increased welfare, and increased job training, unemployment and criminal justice costs over the lifetime of these students.

Excerpted from the “State of the State” keynote presented by Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA executive director, for the Graduation Guaranteed/Graduación Garantizada – Statewide Summit on School Holding Power held by IDRA and the League of United Latin American Citizens in November 2005.

[©2005, 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.]

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