Statement of Aurelio M. Montemayor
Senior Staff Member at the Intercultural Development Research Association and Director of the Texas IDRA Parent Information Resource Center (PIRC)

Graduation for All:
A Framework for Policy and Action
Summit, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, Inc. – September 9, 2008

IDRA is an independent, non-profit organization founded in 1973 committed to one mission: creating schools that work for all children, especially those children who have traditionally been left behind – those who are poor, minority or speak a language other than English. I am here for Dr. Maria Robledo Montecel, President and CEO of IDRA.

I am grateful to the institute to have the opportunity to join you today as we chart a course for federal policymaking and for state and local action to assure that all children not only succeed academically and graduate from high school, but graduate prepared for all that can follow for them.

It is fitting that we should meet now, early in September, as families around the country send their students off to school; as children meet new teachers and open new notebooks that are waiting to be filled with their fresh thoughts; and as students settle into a routine.

What cannot be routine is how we greet and treat our students, how we prepare them, how we challenge each one, and how we set the stage for their success. We cannot afford to stay with the same routine, particularly when, as our conference so rightly asserts, we have the power to make a difference. We have the power to ensure graduation for all students.

How far are we from this goal?

As a nation, we are graduating only seven in 10 students with a diploma on time.1 And only half of our Hispanic students can expect to graduate with a diploma.

As we all know, graduation is closely tied to academic preparation. Looking at just one indicator – 12th grade math proficiency – only 8 percent of Hispanic students, compared to 29 percent of White students, perform at or above proficiency.2

Some will say we cannot afford to adopt a vision that expects all students to graduate. But this ignores both the short-term and long-term costs of our current routine – of insufficient or misdirected action.

When 1.25 million students don’t graduate, the cost to the country is $325 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity for just one class of students.3

By contrast, if every household were headed by an individual with at least a high school diploma, there would be an additional $74 billion in collective wealth in the country.

To break away from unworkable routines, IDRA has partnered with thousands of educators, business leaders, families and community leaders to strengthen public education. We have worked with schools in several states through our federally-funded equity assistance center and our Parent Information and Resource Center PIRC (which I direct.)

We have worked closely with schools and school systems to help them address the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.  This year, through the PIRC, we disseminated information to hundreds of thousands of Texans and worked directly with over 11,000. IDRA has partnered with the Hispanic Education Coalition to frame recommendations for NCLB reauthorization regarding English language learners, on which the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund recently testified before the Senate.

We have conducted over two decades of research on attrition and the constellation of factors that result in weak school holding power.

Based on this work, we offer four primary recommendations focused at the campus, district and system levels for breaking the routine. Dr. Robledo Montecel offered similar recommendations in testimony before the Committee on Education and Labor,
House of Representatives in April of 2007.

(1) Count every student to make sure every student counts,
(2) Tend to the transition points,
(3) Spur school-level action around a Quality Schools Action Framework, and
(4) Invest in school holding power.

First, we must count every student to make sure every student counts.

In 1986, Dr. Robledo Montecel served as principal investigator for one of the first statewide studies of school dropouts. Since 1986,
Texas schools have lost more than 2.5 million students. One student is lost every four minutes. The cost of under-educating our young people has been $730 billion to the state of
Texas alone.

IDRA was alone in reporting attrition rates in
Texas that differed from official counts by 20 or 30 percentage points. But with that study IDRA developed an enrollment-based methodology that has become the foundation for dropout counting methods by other researchers.

Today, thanks to the work of other independent researchers, from the Harvard Civil Rights Project to the Urban Institute, there is a convergence of data that irrefutably points to a huge dropout problem.

The magnitude of attrition is no longer a question. State counting systems, however, must now be aligned in promoting consistent ways to collect and report dropout data and to disaggregate it by subpopulations. We must know how school children of all backgrounds are faring.

But we must continue on a track that has us not only count but account for every student and account for transfers and moves and changes in enrollment status.

We must have dropout data and knowledge that are useful and actionable around a teachers’ conference room, a board room, the local taqueria, or the family kitchen table.

Secondly, we must tend to the transition points. We need to fund district-wide efforts that focus on elementary-to-middle and middle-to-high school transitions, when students are most vulnerable.

IDRA’s 1986 study of attrition, like many subsequent studies, found that 50 percent of Latinos who were going to drop out of school did so before reaching ninth grade, at the critical juncture before high school.

This finding guided IDRA’s design of the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program. This award-winning cross-age tutoring program works by engaging students at key points in middle and high school who are at risk of dropping out and placing them as tutors for younger students. The program has since kept more than 25,000 students in school and has impacted more than 456,000 children, families and educators.

But as a nation, we are not tending to the transitions that affect students’ day-to-day experiences on campuses around the country. Not only do we lose our students at key transition points, we count on and budget for their attrition.

Dr. Robledo Montecel tells of a freshman English teacher in a large inner-city high school preparing her curriculum when her principal sent her a list of 38 students assigned in one class. She marched to his office and told him that she could not do a good job with 38 students in one class. He told her: “Not to worry. In six weeks, your class will have 24 students.” The other 14, he assured her, will have dropped out by then.

We need to be honest about the fact that we plan on one third of students leaving school before they graduate. This assumption – this routine – is built into classroom assignments, teacher hiring practices, curriculum purchases and facilities planning.

With newly focused federal investment, school districts across the country can shore up the key transition points that students face to secure a “safe passage” when they are most vulnerable.

(3) We must spur school-level action teams around a framework for action

Community oversight is a critical missing ingredient in effective and accountable local dropout prevention efforts.

To support such local partnerships, IDRA has developed a Quality Schools Action Framework that offers a model for school-level action teams to assess school outcomes, identify leverage points for improvement, and focus on effecting change.

To graduate students who are prepared for later life, quality schools, for example need four things: (1) Schools need quality teachers and teaching; (2) Schools need consistent ways to partner with parents and the schools’ communities; (3) Schools need the capacity to create environments that value all students and to incorporate them into learning and school life; and (4) Schools need a high quality, enriched and accessible curriculum.

To have these basic features, school systems must secure two fundamentals: good governance and the resources to serve every student effectively.

Local accountability teams keep schools from working in isolation. Such teams would review their local data and develop comprehensive graduation plans of action to include all students. Funding priorities for pilot projects would be based on campuses with the lowest graduation rates.

So at the campus level, we must strengthen and support school-level change through local accountability teams, working around a Quality Schools Action Framework.

(4) Invest in Holding Power

With the magnitude of student attrition, what is needed is a seismic shift from “dropout prevention” to graduation for all; and “all” must mean “all.”

Researchers, educators and policymakers have generally focused on “fixing” students rather than on strengthening the school. It is not about fixing students; it is about schools succeeding with all students.

The student-deficit approach has never worked. What works is dropout prevention that focuses on the inherent value of the students and their families. But what exists is not enough. We cannot simply look for another “program”; what is needed is effective systemic reforms that will improve a school’s holding power.

Planning for success requires investment.

Strategic investments in strengthening schools can make a dramatic difference. As an example, if we look at two schools in Bexar County, Memorial High School and Churchill High School, we find two very different sets of conditions. At Memorial, 40 percent of ninth grade Latino students cannot be accounted for by 11th grade. By contrast, at Churchill, the disappearance rate of Hispanic students is 21 percent. Then, at Memorial, we find that fully 22 percent of teachers are teaching out of their field and 13 percent are not certified, compared to Churchill’s 6 percent teaching out of field and 6 percent not certified.

Improving student outcomes must also mean investing that improve teaching and learning.

To invest in changes that make a difference, educators, community members and other stakeholders need high quality, actionable knowledge and information. A host of new indices have sprung up to address this need, but these often serve primarily as “shopping guides” for families looking at various schools or they provide discrete data that fails to help communities connect the dots.

We need indices that guide actions that must be taken and investments that must be made.

The IDRA School Holding Power Portal is such an index to help educators count and account for every student, identify student needs at key transition points and facilitate effective partnerships by School-Level Action Teams. The portal is an actionable data base that gives information on how schools are doing on student attrition and achievement, meaning the outcomes; and what factors from teaching quality to curriculum access and funding equity may be affecting achievement and school holding power, meaning the inputs.

With a problem that affects one in two Latino students – a problem of attrition that is a regularity and routine outcome of our school system – investment in change clearly must go beyond discrete dropout prevention programs. It must reflect our full commitment to providing for quality public schools in all neighborhoods for children of all backgrounds.

To achieve this, to break away from unworkable routines, to move from dropout prevention to graduation for all, we must:

  • Count every student to make sure every student counts;
  • Tend to the transition points;
  • Spur school-level action teams around a framework for action; and
  • Invest in holding power.

Our children and the nation that will soon inherit their gifts deserve no less.

1(Editorial Projects in Education, 2008).
2 (NAEP 2005 data, published in The Nation’s Report Card 2007).
3 ( Alliance for Excellent Education).