Three Decades of Groundbreaking Dropout Research – Reflectons by Dr. Robledo Montecel 

by Bricio Vasquez, Ph.D. • Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2017-18 • December 2018

This year marks the 33rd year that IDRA has published the Texas public school attrition study. First published in 1986, it was an influential report that led to critical public debate on education reform and mobilized policymakers in Texas. Since then, one key figure oversaw the development of this key study and observed the effects that actionable knowledge can have on an entire population. In this article, IDRA President & CEO, Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel reflects on the history of IDRA’s attrition study and its implications for education equity today and beyond.

She recalls, “I came to IDRA in 1976, and it was rather unplanned.” Prior to IDRA, Dr. Robledo Montecel worked for two other organizations, Development Associates and the bilingual evaluation program at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). She describes arriving at IDRA as unplanned because the UTSA center lost its funding, leaving all staff unemployed. Dr. Robledo Montecel was referred to IDRA and was interviewed by Dr. José A. Cárdenas and Blandina “Bambi” Cárdenas (no relation), who subsequently offered her a position as a research assistant at IDRA.

Changing Economy of the 1950s and Later Requires a More Educated Populace

Dr. Robledo Montecel explains that she quickly learned how educational inequities were manifested in schools across San Antonio and the rest of Texas. She worked closely with data as a leader and evaluator at IDRA and saw the differentiated patterns of high school non-completion among minority youth.

She explains: “It was very evident that a fundamental part of educational opportunities for minority students and certainly for Hispanic students had to be increasing the graduation rate. Historically, some school districts in South Texas graduated only 10 percent of their Mexican American students.

And in the 1950s and ‘60s, that failure of schools was rationalized by the claim that people were needed to do the work that nobody else would do. So, whether it was working in the fields or cleaning streets or whatever it was that didn’t pay well and required a lot of physical labor, the feeling was that somebody had to do that. It was seen as perfectly fine for students to drop out of school and go do that.”

Dr. Robledo Montecel further describes that changes in the economy over time led to a more focused awareness of the high school dropout issue facing the nation. A changing economy demanded an educated workforce, and slowly people began to take notice of the undereducation problem.

“As things changed and it became more obvious that we really could not afford to lose that many students before graduating high school. The ‘new’ economy of the late -1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s was requiring more and more graduates. It was no longer affordable for businesses or communities in general to lose so many students before they graduated high school.”

History told a story of an evolving population and economy that demanded changes to the current educational regime. Dr. Robledo Montecel observed these changes and recognized the need to expand on educational attainment among the U.S. population. Throughout her years at IDRA, there were continuous reminders that the condition of educational attainment for minorities, especially for Hispanics, was not well. More and more, evidence demonstrated that minorities were being undereducated in the American educational system.

In Texas, this was evident in the graduation rates among the Hispanic population. In 1968, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a six-day hearing at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio on the civil rights issues of Mexican Americans in the southwestern United States. Data presented at the hearings revealed that, in 1960, the average number of years of formal education for the population 14 years and older was 6.2 years for Hispanics, 10.7 years for Whites, and 8.7 years for Blacks.

Dr. Robledo Montecel reflects on those times: “Those rates became the fundamental basis for school walkouts. Students walked out of schools, like in Crystal City and in San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD, because they were not being educated, they were being allowed to disappear or were pushed out before graduating. And everyone seemed to be fine with that. And there were very few resources going toward doing something about it.”

IDRA’s First Dropout Study for Texas Raises Alarms

In the 1970s, the undereducation of youth was not really improving. According to the U.S. Census, the average number of years of formal schooling for people 25 years old and up was 12 years for Whites, 10 years for Blacks, and seven years for Mexican Americans.

Again, Dr. Robledo Montecel explains, “By the time we got to the early 1980s, there was increasing concern. At the forefront of confronting the issues that were getting in the way of equal educational opportunity, IDRA decided to focus on dropouts and what was being done, or not done, about that.”

That historical narrative, coupled with an early, yet distinguished career in educational advocacy, led Dr. Robledo Montecel and a smart team at IDRA, including Dr. José A. Cárdenas (IDRA’s founder), Ms. Josie Cortez, Dr. Albert Cortez, Mr. Roy Johnson and Mr. David Ramírez, to conceive of the first research to examine dropouts in the Texas. “IDRA was commissioned to do this first-ever comprehensive statewide study by what is now the Texas Department of Commerce (back then it was called the Texas Department of Community Affairs) and the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Among other things, I was, by then, the director of the IDRA Center for the Prevention and Recovery of Dropouts. And so, this became the first major study of that center. I was asked and agreed to be the principal investigator. In collaboration with some folks in Austin and other places, we conceived of a study that would become the seven-volume Texas School Dropout Survey Project.* The results were published in October of 1986. It was a very quick, very in-depth, multi-method study. It actually took us only six months. So, it was very intense, very deliberate, and very quick.”

Figuring out how many students dropped out of school before graduating high school was a challenge at the time. In the 1960s and 1970s, most students dropped out of school in middle school or early high school. To determine a true dropout rate, the team would need to identify a cohort of students early in their middle school years and follow them through their high school senior year. No such data existed within TEA’s databases. Instead, Dr. Robledo Montecel and her team decided to approximate a dropout rate using an attrition methodology.

She describes how they developed the attrition method still used today, “We looked around and thought, what will we use to answer this question of what is the dropout rate in Texas? In other words, for high schools in Texas, what is the dropout rate? And, because there were no data, we developed a methodology and a metric. The methodology is an attrition methodology. It uses numbers collected and provided by TEA in terms of overall enrollment on the initial year, or the baseline year. And then it looks at what would be the senior year for that same group of students using the same data. Then we have a correction for in- and out-migration, taking into account whether the district was losing kids or gaining kids due to population shifts. We correct for that. And then came up with an attrition rate. This is not the same as a cohort dropout rate.” (See definitions guide on Page 60.)

The study published by IDRA was unlike any study published at the time. The results alarmed the public. IDRA found that 86,276 students had been lost from the class of 1986 by high schools across Texas. The study also estimated that losing these students cost the state of Texas upwards of $17.2 billion in forgone income, tax revenue, state services and criminal justice costs.

Additionally, the study found stark differences in the patterns of attrition between racial and ethnic groups. According to the 1986 attrition study, the proportion of students lost by race and ethnic category were 27 percent for Whites, 34 percent for Blacks and 45 percent for Hispanics.

Despite the findings of the study and subsequent mobilization by policymakers, the number of students who were lost to schools continued to accumulate over the years. The total students lost between 1986 and 2017 number 3,756,101. Out of the 3.8 million students lost over the years, 2 million (55 percent) were Hispanic.

Study Leads to New Major State Policy

The study’s findings raised the alarm for policymakers and drew much-needed attention to the issue of undereducation in Texas. In the early years, as the attrition study was published annually, education professionals and policymakers mobilized to improve educational attainment. Increasing high school graduation meant increasing the quality of life for youth, and it also meant increasing the economic prosperity of Texas and the nation.

Dr. Robledo Montecel describes the actions taken to reverse the Texas dropout problem: “One important and very good reaction, a planned outcome I would call it, is that the legislature acted on it immediately. And that is a sort of difficult thing to obtain.”

The Texas legislature passed a measure specifically targeting this issue: “Working with policymakers, we assisted in the development of a way to create metrics. Rep. Ciro Rodríguez, who was in the state legislature then and later became a U.S. congressman, decided to introduce House Bill 1010. It did a number of things. It required that dropout data be collected by school districts and be submitted to TEA for the first time. It required that TEA report those out publicly. It defined, in some way, the metric that was acceptable for measuring dropout rates, so that it was consistent with good practice of educational research but was also consistent with what made good sense. HB 1010 also provided dollars for addressing the issue, dollars for school districts. And among those things was a requirement and funding to have a dropout coordinator in every district in the state. And so, there was a kind of a rallying around to address the issue.”

The State Moves from Taking Action to Making Excuses

In subsequent years, after the attrition study had been published several years, public officials and school districts shifted their attitudes away from owning the issue and doing something about it, to making excuses and justifying high dropout rates. To some degree, this shifting of attitudes happened because school districts were now being held accountable for losing students, and there were emerging consequences for them if improvement did not continue. What was initially a marshalling of attention to solving the dropout problem later turned into an exercise on justifying dropouts on behalf of school districts, which continues to this day.

Dr. Robledo Montecel explained: “As TEA began to disseminate their information regularly, it began to dawn on some people that this was showing the underside of education in the state of Texas in a way it never had before, because it was giving us real numbers about what was happening. And I think that as that continued, state and school districts moved toward a justification of the data rather than a utilization of the data to address the problem and create solutions.”

According to Dr. Robledo Montecel, the justifications for the dropout problem were widespread and diverse. TEA began to record school dropouts differently than it had when initially compelled by the state legislature. School districts were instructed to report numbers of students who had dropped out, to not count students who may have gone to another state or “back to Mexico.” They were told not to count students who dropped out to get a GED or were being held in a correctional facility. They could claim a student had moved to a different school district without notifying their current school district, even without the home school verifying anything. Many of these “reasons” for students leaving school are excluded from the overall denominator in the high school dropout rate reported by TEA. These reasons are reported as “leaver codes,” and they create a data artifact or an artificial reduction in the dropout rate. (See the current list of leaver codes on Page 49.)

For several years, IDRA urged state policymaking bodies to upgrade the state’s own dropout reporting process. In 2002, Dr. Robledo Montecel testified before the Texas State Board of Education, stating “As the agency’s dropout estimates have declined over the last decade, so has the credibility of its dropout reporting… This state can continue to delude itself by resorting to tricks like cumbersome definitions and unwieldy reporting and counting systems, or we can simplify the process so that it is both understandable and believable. Texas needs diplomas, not delusions.”

The following year, the Texas legislature mandated the state to use the NCES definition in the computation of the dropout indicator beginning the 2005-06 school year. The state also simplified its leaver code system in part by cutting the number of codes by more than half.

In addition, there have been numerous efforts by researchers and policymakers to explain away the undereducation of poor and minority youth. Commonly, researchers employ a deficit framework that leads to faulty results. Dr. Robledo Montecel put this in direct language when describing the results of a recent study she recently read: “They conclude that 10 percent of schools in the country continue to have these inordinately high dropout rates and that those schools, they assert, largely are majority-minority and that those are the schools with the highest dropout rates. And so, that’s a fact, that’s what they find. What is not a fact, but rather an interpretation, is that the reason that this happens is because the kids are poor. Well, there is no causal effect between being poor and dropping out of school that I have ever seen.”

“Being poor does not erase a child’s ability to learn and succeed. It just doesn’t,” she adds.

This deficit framework blames individual student characteristics as the reasons behind their lack of success within a culturally mismatched educational system. Dr. Robledo Montecel further emphasizes: “The reason that those explanations don’t make sense is because there are poor schools that do a good job with poor students. And we as a country have not bothered to see what it is that has them do a good job. In other words, what are the variables that schools have control over that will have an impact on outcomes for schools? It does educators no good to talk about, ‘Well the kids are poor and therefore we cannot do anything.’ It takes the agency completely out of the educator. It takes the agency completely out of the schools. And it’s completely useless.”

She adds, “When some folk figured out they can’t speak in ways that blame school failure on a particular race or ethnic group, they swapped it out with students’ economic status to make it sound more palatable and studious.”

It is now 33 years after the initial study of dropouts in Texas, and there is still much work to be done toward achieving universal high school graduation. The attrition study from 1986 has been replicated every year since then with consistent methodology and has shown that dropout rates have slowly declined over the years, though gaps remain and some are even worse. “We have to keep focusing attention on the issue in order to make any progress at all.”

The New Assault on Public Education

When asked what else needs attention, Dr. Robledo Montecel states that there is one major issue that rises to the top, and that is the movement against supporting public education. “We cannot give in to the assault on public education. That is something that did not exist in any real way in 1986 when we did the Texas Dropout Survey Project, or in 1973 when IDRA started. There was, in those days, a fundamental buy-in for public education.”

In recent years though, there has been little effort to empower public schools. For example, there has been increased dialog on providing vouchers for private schools and setting up charter schools at the expense of public schools. And public schools have experienced diminishing resources due to the increasing number of charter schools. This has diminished public schools’ ability to serve all students equally. And it removes the community oversight for what happens to their students.

In her letter introducing IDRA’s 2017 annual report, Dr. Robledo Montecel quotes Chief Justice Earl Warren in his majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education: “Education… is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

She says: “Education is, of course, useful to the individual, but it is also part of the public good. If you look at the dropout rate and consider the cost of not educating the 86,276 students who didn’t graduate that first year of our study and if you consider that the state of Texas lost $17 billion in forgone income over the course of a lifetime of these students, it’s very clear that education is not just a private good, that it is for the common good.”

Dr. Robledo Montecel explains: “The attempts to deal with education in ways that blame the poor for school failure, or that allow the state to grossly underfund public education, or that turn over the role of education to private interests who pretend to ‘rescue’ some kids at the expense of everyone else are all doomed to fail the people of Texas. Instead, we need courageous leadership at all levels to examine data honestly and to create solutions that work for all children.”

This is the final year of Dr. Robledo Montecel serving as President & CEO of IDRA after 26 years of service. She provides a roadmap for moving forward with the work for education equity at IDRA. Among other things, she stresses the need to advocate for strong public schools and to work across different sectors.

“IDRA’s evolving and growing ability to work across research, policy and practice is crucial and is part of what I think gives IDRA’s work its value added. Most organizations are either research organizations or they are policy organizations or they are practice organizations, working with educators and providing technical assistance. We do all of that. And, importantly, we are work across silos, applying interdisciplinary thoughts to what we do. So that the research affects our policy work, and our practice comes back very quickly and informs what we are doing with regards to policy and with regards to research. And I think that if we deepen those links and truly do interdisciplinary, inter-sector, inter-perspective work that our work will continue to get stronger.”

The 33 years of IDRA’s attrition studies themselves archive a historical pattern of education access in the state of Texas. The attrition study emerged as a need to solve an emerging workforce problem in the 1970s and 1980s but also provided a lens into how education structures in Texas work to subjugate marginalized youth and reproduce social inequalities. She developed the IDRA Quality Schools Action Framework to guide schools and communities in focusing on key leverages points to improve their schools and ensure every subgroup of students has access to high quality education.

Dr. Robledo Montecel states, “I think that the future has to look like meeting the promises that we make to kids and meeting the promises that we make to each other as a country, about what we stand for.”

She believes that what we stand for as a country with regards to education is critical: “Our future depends on us having an excellent public educational 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. And this is a goal I believe we can achieve.”

Bricio Vasquez, Ph.D., is IDRA’s education data scientist (