From Dropping Out to Holding On

María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: The following is the text of a keynote address presented by Dr. Robledo Montecel, IDRA executive director, at a conference in Houston entitled, “Texas Dropout Crisis and Our Children: A Conference on Graduation Rates, Causes and Policy Solutions,” sponsored by Rice University and the Harvard Civil Rights Project.

When it comes to the dropout crisis in Texas, some people are not waiting around. They are already doing something about this persistent problem knowing that many young people leave high school without graduating and are therefore relegated to second class citizenship.

There has never been a time in the history of education in Texas that equal educational opportunity has been a reality. Our history is marred by a two-tiered system: excellent education for the elite and substandard education for everyone else, in particular minorities and the children of the poor.

Historical and current dropout rates mirror that reality. In the last 20 years, average high school attrition rates in Texas have hovered at 30 percent to 40 percent.

What ought we to do now? In order to move from dropping out to holding on, I believe we need to link knowledge and action.

Building Knowledge

It used to be a lonely task for IDRA, reporting attrition rates in Texas that differed from official counts by 20 or 30 percentage points. But today, thanks to researchers, there is a convergence of data that irrefutably points to a huge dropout problem.

Clear, consistent and credible data that point to where we are, to where we are headed and to whether we are getting there are essential to good public policy, accountable leadership and an engaged public. We will continue to need dropout data and knowledge that are useful and actionable around a teachers’ conference room, a board room, the local taco stand and the family kitchen table.

At IDRA, we have been working on building an actionable knowledge base. Each year, for the past 20 years, we have published findings from our high school attrition research. And this past year, we added a searchable database that anyone can use to look up attrition rates for their county in Texas.

Most recently, under our new Graduation Guaranteed/Graduación Garantizada initiative, we have been piloting a school holding power portal that gives community-school action teams data on how their schools are doing on student attrition and achievement. The portal then provides data on the factors that affect attrition, achievement and school holding power at the campus level.

Knowledge about this issue of dropouts is building, making it possible to inform people, practices and policies. In recent months, we have seen new national-level attention and new foundation investment in dropout research and in reform strategies.

IDRA has just released results from our 2005-06 annual study of attrition in Texas high schools. Using consistent enrollment methodology, these data afford us a 20-year look at patterns. Here is a snapshot of our most recent findings.

Today, Texas has a 35 percent rate of attrition. This is higher than the 33 percent rate that so alarmed people back in 1986. And 137,162 freshmen, members of the class of 2002 who we expected to see in 12th grade, were unaccounted for and, therefore, do not count in many eyes.

There is a growing gap in attrition between Latino students and African American students and their White peers. Over the last two decades, attrition rates of Hispanic students have increased from 45 percent to 47 percent. For Black students, rates have increased from 34 percent to 40 percent. For White students over that period, attrition rates have declined by 22 percent. Also, rates are worsening for boys. Attrition rates for male students have increased from 35 percent to 38 percent since our first study. (See the October issue of the IDRA Newsletter for more information or visit the IDRA web site at www.idra.org.)

Over the last 20 years, more than 2.5 million students have been lost from public school enrollment. Houston has a population of almost 2 million people. It is the fourth most populous city in the nation. So losing 2.5 million students is like losing the entire city of Houston, plus Katy, Baytown, Deer Park, Galena Park, Humble, Pasadena, Pearland, Texas City, League City and Sugarland in just two decades.

Think of these numbers in another way: every four minutes, one student is lost from Texas public schools. From the time we shared coffee this morning to the time we began lunch, 52 more students were lost. By the time we finish this conference this afternoon, another 60 will be lost.

So, building knowledge is an essential step in addressing a growing public mandate to do something about these dismal dropout statistics. But knowledge alone is never enough.

The story of dropouts in Texas makes that clear. Permit me a recounting of that story.

Knowledge and Denial

On October 31, 1986, IDRA completed and published the Texas School Dropout Survey Project. Commissioned by the state of Texas, it 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.

That 1986 study had an immediate effect on policy and practice. Soon after the study, the legislature passed state policy requiring dropout data collection and reporting. House Bill 1010 mandated that the state reduce the longitudinal dropout rate to not more that 5 percent of the total student population by 2000. A 95 percent graduation rate was to be the standard by which we measured our success.

And it was a good, straightforward start. Data collection systems were put into place at the Texas Education Agency. And the first report by TEA (1988) pointed to a statewide longitudinal dropout rate of 34 percent, just a hair different from the rates IDRA had independently reported. Also, as a result of new state policy and regulation following the IDRA study, most school districts identified dropout prevention coordinators and developed dropout prevention plans.

But after Texas took major steps, that good start fell apart (see article entitled, “The Texas Dropout Saga 23 Years and Counting“). Resources and actions soon went to explaining away the problem by blaming students or families and by lowering the dropout counts through changes in dropout definitions at the state level. The fog index shot up.

The results are evident.

The state cannot afford to spend another 20 years in a cycle of knowledge and denial. We ought not to spend another 20 years explaining away the counts and postponing the need to do something about them. As it is, if we stay on the current path, even assuming the most optimistic scenario, IDRA’s statistical models indicate that it will take Texas until 2040 for us to reach the target goal of a 5 percent dropout rate set by the state back in 1988.

We must make sure 34 more graduating classes of children in the state do not have to walk the stage missing fully one third of the students they started out with.

Knowledge and Action

Clearly we need to begin a cycle of knowledge and action. We must leave the knowledge and denial cycle behind.

In taking action, we must adopt proven dropout prevention strategies to help children at immediate risk of dropping out. That cannot wait.

But we must also go beyond stop-gap measures and get at the deeper causes of attrition.

To graduate students who are prepared for later life, schools need competent, caring teachers who are well-paid and supported in their work. That means teachers are well prepared, placed in their field of study and informed by continual professional development.

To increase school holding power, schools need consistent ways to partner with parents and engage the communities to which schools belong. Effective partnerships are based on respect and shared goals of academic success and integrate parents and communities into school decision-making.

Student engagement is also integral to any good plan to reduce attrition. 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 that value students of all backgrounds and to incorporate them into learning and school life in ways that strengthen their sense of connection and promote their academic achievement.

School holding power also depends on a high quality, enriched and accessible curriculum. Recent research on math curricula and college participation found that among students whose parents did not go to college, 64 percent of students who took advanced math courses (beyond Algebra II) attended college, compared to 11 percent for those who only took Algebra I and geometry (Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation, 2006). Curriculum quality and access are absolutely essential for student success.

To have these basic features (quality teaching, parent and community engagement, student engagement, quality curriculum), school systems must secure two fundamentals: good governance and the resources to serve every student effectively.

Fair funding is central to the success of our school system. And right now that is not in place.

House Bill 1, passed last May, has widened the equity gap by 30 percent. Texas’ top 50 wealthiest schools are 72 percent White. Texas’ poorest 50 schools – our most under-resourced schools – are 94 percent Hispanic. (See IDRA’s analysis in the August issue of the IDRA Newsletter.)

Taking Action Seriously

So the question is, are we serious about getting results for every child?

We need to be honest about the fact that, right now, we plan for 30 percent attrition and we budget for a two-tiered system. We assume that fewer students will graduate than started in the ninth grade and even fewer children will graduate than started in kindergarten. This assumption is built into teacher hiring practices, into ways 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.

What would planning for success mean? In 2005-06, as I mentioned, 137,162 students were lost from Texas public schools. If we budgeted $6,000 per student, we would need to plan on investing another $8.2 billion and we would need more than 5,000 new classrooms across the state, more teachers, more labs, more guidance counselors, more technology, and more textbooks.

Too expensive? We are already paying the price. Over the last two decades, the inability of schools to hold on to students through high school graduation has cost the state of Texas about $730.1 billion in forgone income, lost tax revenues, and increased job training, welfare, unemployment and criminal justice costs.

We know, on the other hand, from IDRA cost studies that every $1 invested in education, yields a $9 return.

In fact, Texas economist Ray Perryman estimates that just a 10 percent )reduction in dropouts would produce 175,000 new Texas jobs and $200 billion in economic output (Zellmer, 2004).

Texas has the capacity, the ingenuity and the resourcefulness to get results. The Texas gross state product (GSP) was forecast to reach $924 billion in 2005. If Texas were a nation, its economy would rank as the 10th largest in the world. (Business and Industry Data Center, nd)

We cannot afford not to adopt a new cycle of knowledge and action. Our sense of what is right demands it; our children deserve no less.

One of my favorite sayings has always been: Mírate en la mirada de un niño, mírate en la esperanza. See yourself in the eyes of a child, see yourself in hope.

A middle school tutor in IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program brought this home to me. She wrote a poem about what it was like to be selected as a tutor for younger children when she and others had come to define her only by her deficits and by being “at risk.” We have data that shows the positive results of this dropout prevention program. But no chart, no table, can communicate that value as well as the words she sent to me. She wrote:

I used to like having people control my life,

but now I am more confident.

I used to think school was no good,

but now, thanks to school, I am what I am.

I used to believe I hated education,

but now, because of it, I’m reaching my goals.

I used to wish I was never born,

but now I’m thankful to God for giving me life.

We need one kind of Texas educational system: An excellent system, where all students graduate from high school prepared for college or the world of work, no matter what the color of their skin, the language they speak, or where they happen to be born.

Resources

Business and Industry Data Center. Overview of the Texas Economy (Austin, Texas: Office of the Governor, Economic Development and Tourism, nd) http://www.bidc.state.tx.us/overview/2-2te.htm.

Cárdenas, J.A., and M. Robledo Montecel, and J. Supik. Texas School Dropout Survey Project (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1986).

Cortez, A. “Perspectives on the Texas Legislature’s Latest School Funding Plan,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 2006).

Johnson, R.L. “Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2005-06: Gap Continues to Grow,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2006).

Robledo Montecel, M. “Time to Make High School Graduation the New Minimum,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2006).

Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation. Online data (2006) http://www.tgslc.org/.

Zellmer, J. “Education: Investing in our Future,” School Information System, Madison, Wisconsin, School District, online resource (October 7, 2004) http://www.schoolinfosystem.org/archives/2004/10/index.php.

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.

[©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.]

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