by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2017

Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel“Look to your left… Look to your right… Look behind you. One of you won’t be here in four years.” Do you remember hearing that speech during high school orientation? It’s an old standby because speechmakers can count on it. One in four freshmen in Texas disappears from school by their senior year (Johnson, 2016a). Nationally, that figure is almost one in five (Johnson, 2016b).

When the new letter grades for Texas schools were released in January, one predictable thing we heard was that certain schools are having a more difficult time because of the student population they serve. The underlying message of “We would do better if we had better kids” is that some kids – minority, poor, English learner – are, by their very being, difficult.

But children are not the problem. Children are not the reason U.S. schools have been losing between 21 percent and 16 percent of high school students annually for the last five years (Johnson, 2014, 2015, 2016b).

Some kids fare worse than others. While the rates for White students are five percentage points higher than the national average, the rates for Hispanic students are six points below the national average, and rates for African American students are 10 points below.

In today’s economy, America cannot afford to fully educate some students and not others. We just can’t.

For Texas, IDRA’s forecasting models tell us that by the time today’s kindergartners are 18, the state still will not have universal high school education, leaving many Texans without careers, college and choices in life. This will have a dramatic impact. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen reports that college graduates have 70 percent higher annual earnings than those with only a high school diploma (CEB, 2016).

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

We need to be honest about the fact that we plan for high attrition, and we budget for a two-tiered system. We assume that fewer students will graduate than started in kindergarten. This assumption is built into teacher hiring practices and into curriculum decisions about which courses will be offered and to whom. Student attrition is built into facilities planning and funding decisions.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can refuse to compromise our expectations for graduating all students. All students enrolled in our schools should be expected – and must be supported – to graduate from high school with a strong high school diploma.

The characteristics of the children are absolutely not what leads schools to fail to graduate all students. And by extension it is not due to the characteristics of their families or our community. Our diverse community brings much strength and commitment. And families have made it clear that they expect our students to not just graduate but be prepared for college and career.

So we cannot pretend some schools get a pass because they have a population of students who are “harder to teach.”

But we do know that being poor or minority means you are more likely to be in an underfunded school with teachers who are not well prepared.

Also, as IDRA’s latest report shows, if you are poor or minority or speak another language, you are more likely to be affected by policies and practices that don’t work effectively to keep students in school through graduation (Johnson, 2016a).

One such policy is in-grade retention. Retained students have a 14 percent to 50 percent higher risk of dropping out, and the risk increases to 90 percent for those retained twice. While the highest numbers of students retained are in high school, roughly the same number of first graders are retained as are tenth graders (Warren, et al., 2014). Accelerated instruction in regular and summer programs has been shown to produce better results than in-grade retention.

Another practice that doesn’t work is insufficient support and low funding for English learner education. IDRA reported in 2015 that English learners are among the fastest growing segments of the Texas student population, but they are one of the lowest academically performing groups. And Texas is significantly underfunding ELL education.

Similarly across the country, the achievement gap between eighth grade ELLs and their native English speaking peers was 45 points, and the gap was not measurably different from the gap in 1998 (NCES, 2016). The achievement gap widens considerably as students progress through school (Kim & García, 2014).

Third, despite what some would have us believe, fair and sufficient funding of public schooling is critical. Schools must have quality teaching and rigorous, up-to-date curricula. Schools depend on fair funding to serve all of their students each school day. Equitable funding makes a difference. In Texas, poor school districts have attrition rates that are more than double those of high-wealth districts.

Fourth, research shows that expectations of students’ abilities are vital to their education. Some school districts are taking high expectations district-wide by considering all students college-material and teaching them accordingly. One district in South Texas, for example, cut dropout rates in half and dramatically increased college-going rates (Bojorquez, 2014).

A fifth type of detrimental policy is testing that is high-stakes. Student assessment is essential to informing good teaching and helping communities hold schools accountable, but children must not be hurt in the process. State and school policies have often gone too far by misusing testing data to hold students back. This neglects to take into account multiple factors that affect student achievement, including inequitable school resources and teaching quality.

One positive policy change by the Texas Legislature recently unlocked diplomas for 6,000 qualified students. IDRA’s analysis found that students who are poor, Latino or African American benefited most from the alternative graduation policy that let school officials consider students’ course grades and other factors rather than just a single test score.

Sixth, IDRA found that zero tolerance policies contribute to high attrition rates of Black students and Hispanic students. While practices vary, the general approach is the same: removing students who are deemed disruptive. However, there is no research to support that zero tolerance makes schools any safer.

The U.S. Office for Civil Rights shows that Black public preschool children are suspended at high rates – these children are 19 percent of enrollment, but 47 percent of those who received one or more out-of-school suspensions (2016). Students in special education and poor students had higher rates as well. And students as young as 6 years old were removed from their kindergarten classes and sent to alternative schools for “discipline” problems.

This has huge consequences as the data show that children are up to 10 times more likely to drop out of high school if they’ve been expelled or suspended (HHS & DOE, 2014).

We can change this. It’s time that we get ourselves unstuck.

Getting unstuck does not mean giving up on public education. Public schooling is the cornerstone of freedom, democracy and economic opportunity. A handful of special interest groups have tried to shift the country away from this promise. But distributing public money for private schools takes away money from our communities and puts it in the pockets of private interests that are not accountable to the public. This is not a workable solution.

Instead, the best way to strengthen public schools is to strengthen public schools – schools that are accountable to us all.

We can change policies and practices that push students out of school and that have the effect of favoring some children over others. We can make sure students have highly-qualified teachers using rigorous curricula. And we can make sure their parents and communities are engaged with their schools and the state provides fair funding to prepare students for 21st century opportunities.

Our country has the capacity, ingenuity and resourcefulness to get the results we want and that our children deserve.


Bojorquez, H. (2014). College Bound and Determined (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

CEB. (December 20, 2016). “Yellen to Grads: Congratulations, You’ve Got the Best Job Market in a Decade,” Talent Daily.

IDRA. (February 2015). New Research on Securing Educational Equity and Excellence for English Language Learners in Texas Secondary Schools (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Johnson, R. (November 2016a). “Texas’ Overall Attrition Rate Inches Up – School Holding Power Improvement Slowed,” Texas Public School Attrition Study 2015-16 (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Johnson, R. (November 2016b). “Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate – Texas Ranked 4th in On-time Graduation in 2013-14,” Texas Public School Attrition Study 2015-16 (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Johnson, R. (November 2015). “Texas Compares Well with Other States in Federal Dropout Report,” Texas Public School Attrition Study 2015-16 (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Johnson, R. (November 2014). “Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate – Texas Tied for 22nd in On-time Graduation in 2011-12,” Texas Public School Attrition Study 2014-15 (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Kim, W.G., & García, S.B. (2014). “Long-term English Language Learners’ Perceptions of their Language and Academic Learning Experiences,” Remedial and Special Education, 1-13.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). “Reading Performance,” The Condition of Education 2016 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education).

Office for Civil Rights. (2016). 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education).

Health and Human Services and Department of Education. (December 10, 2014). Policy Statement on Expulsion and Suspension Policies in Early Childhood Settings (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education).

Warren, J.R., & E. Hoffman, M. Andrew. (2014). “Patterns and Trends in Grade Retention Rates in the United States, 1995-2010,” Educational Researcher.

María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is President & CEO of the Intercultural Development Research Association. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at

[©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2017 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.]