by María Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 1997

Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.Editor’s Note: In June, IDRA submitted testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce as it considered reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The committee focused part of its discussion on the dropout rates of Hispanic students. The following is an overview of IDRA’s testimony.

At IDRA, our work in the prevention and recovery of dropouts has impacted schools, programs and policy across the country. This work is undergirded by three tenets:

  • Current dropout rates are unacceptable, and our country must not continue to incur the social, political and economic costs attendant to these rates.
  • Excellence in education and the resultant social, political and economic benefits are only possible in a context of equity and inclusivity.
  • Excellence in education can be achieved through commitment and capacity.

As adults, we must speak for those who have no voice – our children and youth. We have a responsibility to ensure that all of our children have equitable opportunities for success. If we fail, this country will have lost all that our children could have and would have been. And right now, we are failing our children.

In this country, more than one out of 10 Hispanic students drops out of school every year. According to a Census Bureau report released last month, the high school dropout rate among Hispanics rose to 11.6 percent in 1995, from 9.2 percent in 1994. This is the highest level this decade. It is more than double the national rate, which also rose to 5.4 percent in 1995, from 5 percent in 1994.

Although Hispanic students comprise 12 percent of the US student high school population, they make up almost 22 percent of dropouts. Furthermore, of all students who drop out of school, half are Hispanic.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, of all Hispanics in the United States between the ages of 16 and 24, more than one out of three will have dropped out of school. IDRA’s research found that of all Hispanics who drop out, half do so before entering the ninth grade. We also found that 85 percent of Texas dropouts were born in the United States.

We have a leak in our educational pipeline of students beginning elementary school, continuing through high school and pursuing higher education. So we have a much smaller pool of young people who are available to participate in higher education. And we have many young people who would have excelled in higher education and possessed the tools needed to make a greater impact on their communities, if only we had plugged the leak that got in their way.

We have had this leak for a long time. Nationally, the dropout rate has climbed since 1982, and it is currently even higher that it was in 1967. For Hispanics in particular, the rate has been higher than its current level in only two of the last 23 years.

State-level data is even more telling. In Texas, IDRA calculates the longitudinal trends of attrition rates. In the last 10 years, the percent of students (all races and ethnicities) lost from public school enrollment has worsened, from 33 percent in 1985-86 to 42 percent in 1995-96. One out of every two Hispanic students drops out of school. When you look at the trend among Hispanics over time, this number has increased over the past 10 years: from 45 percent of Hispanic students dropping out of school in 1986 to 53 percent in 1996.

A number of initiatives and policies within schools, cities and states have been undertaken. Many are not working.

Two years ago, I participated with the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans in taking a look at the education of Hispanics in elementary and secondary schools. The commission’s report published last September, Our Nation on the Fault Line: Hispanic American Education Dropouts, concludes, “Hispanic American students’ high dropout rates are linked to various inefficiencies and inadequacies throughout the educational system.”

What we have done has not worked because schools do not do what needs doing in terms of Hispanic students. Often times, what little has been done, has been done poorly and often has actually been counterproductive. Responses for preventing and recovering dropouts must avoid the common pitfalls listed below that in the past have doomed such efforts to failure.

Deficit model base. It is erroneous and counterproductive to assume that the target population is entirely to blame for educational failure. Deficit models place a stress on changing the characteristics of a student so that the student will fit into school programs created for homogeneous populations. In many cases, it is impossible for the students to make such a transformation. In other cases, it is questionable whether it is desirable to do so. In all cases, it is detrimental to initiate relationships between student and school with the student’s rejection of self as the basis for acceptance and integration. The essence of a successful school-student relationship is not the characteristics of the student, nor of the school, but the extent to which each can accommodate the other’s characteristics.

Elitist model base. The prevention and recovery of school dropouts cannot be based on the assumption that some students are valuable and others are valueless. Programmatic efforts that aim at the improvement or enhancement of educational opportunities for some students at the expense of others are counterproductive. Such “trickle down” reform efforts usually end up reforming schools to benefit those who are already doing well and say “life’s tough” to those who are not. The need for a skilled, literate and educated work force precludes the development of a small elite backed by massive numbers of unproductive, functional illiterates.

Simplistic and superficial responses. Since the causes for students dropping out of school are extremely complex, it is doubtful that an effective solution can be found based on simplistic superficial approaches to the problem. On the contrary, effectiveness will require comprehensive approaches that are also cost-beneficial.

Impractical approaches. Solutions to the problem of school dropouts must be feasible in terms of changing variables that are within the control of the school. Solutions must also be realistic in terms of costs and incentives within a public school setting. Thus, persons involved in the development of feasible approaches for the reduction of dropout rates must be intimately acquainted with the realities of schools.

Dysfunctional responses. In the history of the schools’ relationships with special populations, it is not uncommon to find educational policies and practices that were aimed at the amelioration or elimination of a problem but turned out to be useless or, in some cases, exacerbated the problem. There has been little sensitivity to the needs of atypical students. Education is not a “one size fits all” kind of business. Dysfunctional responses are usually created by ignorance of non-middle-class values and orientations and by a belief that atypical populations will be motivated by the same stimuli found effective with middle-class populations.

The President’s Advisory Commission called for the nation to improve education for Hispanic Americans: “Intervention measures, therefore, must be aimed at the elementary level and secondary level since a very large percent drop out early. Simply put, there is a need for more programs designed to bring the performance of Latino students up to par with other groups.”

In its 24-year experience and research in education and dropout prevention, IDRA has identified the following as critical to reversing the trend of high dropout rates, particularly among Hispanic students.

Strategies must impact the triad of school, family and community, and student. The dropout problem is a complex phenomenon that involves the configuration of student, school, and family and community characteristics. It is essential that an examination and understanding of the relationships among these characteristics guide the development of dropout prevention and recovery strategies.

Strategies must be based on the understanding of the heterogeneity and the need for local adaptation of intervention models. Efforts to identify and profile students at high risk of dropping out must incorporate this recognition. For instance, a middle school male who drops out of a small suburban school may differ greatly from a 10th grade female urban school dropout. In tandem with the recognition of heterogeneity and the development of profiles (rather than a universal profile), we must recognize that a variety of models must be developed. These must be responsive to the range of student, school and community characteristics identified, and they must then be adapted to the characteristics of a local situation.

Strategies must include informed public policy. Public policy must incorporate analyses of costs and benefits. The concept that education is a significant and legitimate economic investment that yields personal and social returns has been largely accepted by economists, policy-makers, educators and social service practitioners. The development of human capital in terms of formal education plays a role in increasing production through the income-generating capacity of the labor force and increasing efficiency by reducing welfare costs and releasing public resources for more productive pursuits. In the long-term context, cost categories include per pupil expenditures, youth remediation expenses and training costs. Benefits include reduced dependence on welfare programs (unemployment insurance) and reduced antisocial behavior such as drug and alcohol abuse, criminal activity and related expenses.

In 1986, IDRA conducted the first statewide study of dropouts in the state of Texas. The study looked at the magnitude; the identification, counting and reporting of dropouts; the cost to our country; and what we were doing about it. Our research resulted in the state legislature passing House Bill 1010 in 1987 that required standard identification and reporting procedures of students who drop out of school. In 1986, we found that for every $1 invested in education there was a $9 return.

Public policies must also?utilize effective data bases and research. We must ensure that we ask the right questions when we research the dropout issue, focusing on what schools must do to tap the inherent strengths of their minority students and families, and not on what their students and families lack and must do to “fit into” the schools.

For example in 1994, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) submitted a report on its audit of Hispanic dropouts. However, the study, Hispanics’ Schooling: Risk Factors for Dropping Out and Barriers to Resuming Education, contributed little information on Hispanic dropouts, contained a number of inconsistencies, and even provided erroneous information and conclusions about this pressing educational problem. Limitations of the study included the following:

  • It was conducted using census data exclusively, even though there are other extensive studies that could have been incorporated into the report. A study conducted solely on census data does not provide any information about the level of performance at the time the student dropped out. Census data also provide very few insights into the nature of the problem and its remediation.
  • It used a definition of a “dropout” that considered the completion of a General Education Development (GED) program as the equivalent to high school graduation. It even went a step further and eliminated as defined dropouts former students who were studying for a GED certificate.
  • It included an overabundance of analysis of foreign born dropouts, thus adding to the popular, but misguided, scapegoating of immigrant students.
  • It was careless in various types of inclusion and exclusion.
  • It drew erroneous conclusions not supported by GAO data or any other study.
  • It was very defensive of US schools, attributing dropouts to various presumed characteristics of the Hispanic population rather than to poor performance by schools.

Strategies must incorporate ways of increasing the capacity of schools, family and community, and students to produce results. Special attention must be given to the following to build capacity:

  • The formulation and implementation of specialized prevention and recovery approaches.
  • Professional development activities and follow-up. Such activities must be targeted and include both in-service and pre-service. Professional development should not only expand knowledge, but also cause educators to view children in different ways. Follow-up should include built-in mechanisms for support and reinforcement.
  • Meaningful community and family participation. An example is IDRA’s model for meaningful participation that includes four levels: parents as teachers, parents as resources, parents as decision makers and parents as leaders. It recognizes the role the larger community plays in education. It requires schools to change their ways of operating that exclude parents for efficiency’s sake into ways that welcome family and community members as partners.
  • Administrative roles and responsibilities as these relate to dropout prevention and recovery strategies.

Strategies must provide equity in resources. Providing children with facilities that are conducive to learning is an important part of their intellectual development, whether that be at the primary or secondary levels. The continued decline of classroom and building conditions and the need for increased construction are expected to continue to burden US school districts into the next century. As we look at the new construction and renovation activities occurring nationally, it will be important for us to be vigilant in tracking the concentrations of minority pupils to avoid resegregation and to ensure that all students benefit from these efforts. We must also do this with other school resources. We must make our schools equitable and excellent and accessible to all of our children, and we must align resources with needs.

Strategies must include mechanisms that hold the schools accountable for results. Such mechanisms include standardized definitions and data collection, systematic approaches for evaluating and reporting dropout prevention and recovery efforts, and ways to change strategies that are found to be ineffective.

Strategies must allow for diffusion of successful approaches and the development of action networks. Effective innovations die for the lack of dissemination, diffusion and replication. To have significant effects, dropout initiatives must incorporate provisions for information dissemination and for networking of persons involved in dropout-related activities. Information diffusion efforts must capitalize on the most effective existing private and public sector networks at local, state, regional and national levels.

As we look at what we must do to change the path we have created for our children, we must have greater accountability, accessibility and alignment. We must accept that we are accountable for all of our children and youth, particularly those whose cries are not being heard.

We must stop blaming our children or their families for our failures.

IDRA believes that all students are valuable; none is expendable. Our program, the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, is one manifestation of adults connecting with youths considered potential dropouts in a way that is a testament to students’ strengths and what they can contribute to their peers, their schools, their families and their communities.

We must not underestimate the effects of such a connection or such a belief and valuing model: more that 98 percent of Valued Youth participants, most of them Hispanic, stay in school. During the first four years of the program in the South San Antonio Independent School District, all of the Valued Youth students, almost all of them Hispanic, graduated from high school. During the last 12 years, the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has made a visible difference in the lives of more than 33,000 children, families and educators.

When adults see that students who they thought would drop out of school are, when given the opportunity, inspirations and positive leaders to their peers, motivated learners to their teachers, sources of pride to their parents and contributors to their communities, a transformation occurs. They begin to see what is possible for all children. They begin to question their beliefs about students who may look different from them or speak another language. And ultimately, they change and make connections with other caring adults, and as a result schools change.

There are other efforts across the country that are working and are keeping young people in school. Many more are needed if we are going to attain the second educational goal established by the National Education Goals Panel: “By the year 2000, the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.” To reach this goal, we need consistent use of resources, and we need good public policy. We can address the leak in the pipeline so that more Hispanic students can move from elementary and secondary school to excel in higher education.


Cárdenas, José A. “Hispanic Dropouts: Report by General Accounting Office Has Problems,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 1994).

Cárdenas, José A., María Robledo Montecel and Josie Supik. Texas School Dropout Survey Project: A Summary of Findings (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1986).

Cárdenas, José A., María Robledo Montecel, Josie Supik and Richard J. Harris. “The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program: Dropout Prevention Strategies for At-Risk Students,” Texas Researcher (Winter 1992).

Johnson, Roy. “Up or Down: The Dropout Dilemma in Texas,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 1996).

National Center for Education Statistics. Dropout Rates in the United States (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education, 1995).

President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. Our Nation on the Fault Line: Hispanic American Education (Washington, DC: White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, September 1996).

Ramírez, David and María Robledo Montecel. “The Economic Impact of the Dropout Problem,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1987).

Robledo Montecel, María. “The Prevention and Recovery of Dropouts: An Action Agenda,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1986).

Robledo Montecel, María. “School Finance Inequities Mean Schools Are Not Ready to Teach,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 1996).

Supik, Josie. “Equity and Accountability Needed to Reduce Dropout Rates: Testimony Before the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 1996).

US Census Bureau. “Race and Hispanic Origin,” 1990 Census Profile (Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce, 1991).

US Census Bureau. School Enrollment – Social and Economic Characteristics of Students: October 1995 (Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce, May 1997).

Dr. María Robledo Montecel is the executive director of IDRA. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. 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.]