• Josie D. Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2015 •

Editor’s Note: IDRA conducted the first comprehensive study of school dropouts in Texas with the release of the initial study in October 1986. That study, entitled Texas School Dropout Survey Project, was conducted under contract with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the then Texas Department of Community Affairs. Led by principal investigator, Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA President & CEO, the study was published in seven volumes.* That first study found that 86,276 students had not graduated from Texas public schools, costing the state $17 billion in foregone income, lost tax revenues and increased job training, welfare, unemployment and criminal justice costs. Since 1986, IDRA has conducted an annual attrition study using consistent methodology. Since 1992, the studies were led by IDRA senior education associate, Roy L. Johnson, M.S. Having had a key role in IDRA’s first study and other research and work on the dropout issue since then, Josie Cortez, M.A., shares her reflections in this article. 

The Past

Written on an IBM typewriter three decades ago, the sheet of paper has that familiar patina that comes with age, but you can still make out most of the fading words: “I sympathize with the problems created for San Antonio school districts by the release of [IDRA’s] dropout data, but I take exception to the attempts of some districts to execute the messenger for reporting the bad news.” The “messenger” was IDRA.

It was 1986 as IDRA conducted the landmark research study of dropouts in Texas. Under the leadership of Dr. José A. Cárdenas, IDRA’s founder (and author of the typewritten letter), Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA President & CEO, led the research together with Dr. Albert Cortez, Mr. Roy Johnson, and others. I joined IDRA and helped coordinate the research, focusing on what schools were doing to prevent students from dropping out. The study’s seven volumes became game changers in Texas education… but not without a fight.

A firestorm ensued with most school superintendents challenging the findings – “absolutely ludicrous” was probably the nicest thing said.

One superintendent’s phone call brought me to tears. Dr. Cárdenas, a former Edgewood ISD superintendent, took the call, and I began to learn some important lessons about institutions failing students rather than the other way around.

Fast forward almost three decades, and I am writing my final IDRA Newsletter article. Retirement looms ahead, and I can’t help but wonder how it all went so fast.

I’ve been involved with many research studies over the years. But IDRA’s 1986 dropout study stands out, mostly because it led to a series of “first’s.” It was the first to measure the extent of school dropouts in Texas through valid and reliable dropout indices; the first to collect and analyze benefit-cost data on the impact of dropouts on the criminal justice and human service systems in Texas; the first to identify and evaluate in-school and alternative training programs for dropouts in Texas; the first to conduct a meta-analysis of existing school district dropout documentation, design and implementation procedures for tracking student withdrawals in a sample of districts; and the first to generate estimates of macro-community dropout rates in Texas.

In 1986, the attrition rate for Texas high schools was 33 percent, which was nearly half a million students. Attrition rates differed markedly for three racial-ethnic groups in the state: 27 percent for White students, 34 percent for Black students, and 45 percent for Hispanic students. And nearly half of the Hispanic students who dropped out of school did so before leaving the ninth grade, compared to 18 percent of White students and Black students.

IDRA’s study had an extraordinary impact. On May 20, 1987, Texas’ 69th Legislature adopted HB 1010 to respond to the dropout problem in the state. Relying on IDRA’s study, HB 1010 mandated a Texas Education Agency-developed annual estimate of the dropout rate using “standardized statewide recordkeeping, documentation of school transfers by students, and follow-up procedures for students who drop out of school.” The bill also required the agency to calculate dropout rates by campus, district, county, and region for each grade level from seventh to 12th with ethnic breakdowns for each level.

School districts also were required to designate one or more employees to serve as an at-risk coordinator responsible for collecting and disseminating information regarding student dropouts and coordinating the district’s program for students identified as “at risk of dropping out of school.” The bill required school districts to identify “at-risk” students using specific criteria and provide a support program for any student needing one.

The Present

IDRA’s research is still having an impact. To this day, there remains a standardized way to identify, count and report students who drop out of school. There are dropout prevention programs and federal and state funds directed at reporting and preventing school dropouts. And there is research, evaluation, model and program development all focused on “at- risk” youth.

Not surprisingly, there also have emerged ways to “game” whatever accounting and reporting systems are in place, as well as efforts to discount IDRA’s methodology that is now in use by researchers across the country. No amount of gaming the system can change the fact that schools continue to lose too many students. Though attrition rates have declined over the 30 years since the inaugural study, rates remain unacceptably high. The challenge for local school districts, then and now, is to convert research findings into workable solutions to improve student achievement and reduce the high dropout rate in Texas.

Over the years there have been many attempts to “execute the messenger for reporting the bad news.” Despite this, IDRA has remained steadfast. Our attrition reporting continues year after year, as this IDRA Newsletter issue demonstrates. We continue to do this not out of habit or holding on to the past. We continue to do this because it is still needed.

If you don’t count students, then they don’t count. If communities, schools, families, policymakers, researchers and evaluators don’t know the magnitude of the dropout problem, if they don’t know the cost (in dollars and human capital), if they don’t know whether or not their prevention programs are keeping students in school, then students will continue to be in schools that place them in “at-risk” situations so that their leaving school becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is evidence that schools can transform and become places where students, families and communities are engaged in meaningful ways. And there is evidence of successful dropout prevention programs, such as the IDRA Coca‑Cola Valued Youth Program that keeps students in school by their making a difference in the lives of younger students.

Compared to 30 years ago, more students – particularly minority, low-income, and English learner students – are graduating from high school; more students are getting into and graduating from college; more teachers are better prepared to help their students succeed academically; more school administrators are better equipped to lead; and more families are better informed and engaged in the education of their children.

The Future

Despite progress, more needs to be done. And it can only happen if we all continue to seek and tell the truth, standing together with those who believe as we do that all children are valuable; none is expendable.

On a personal note, I may be retiring from IDRA, but I’m not retiring from caring about children and the injustice and inequity they still face in education. There is still much work to do. But I can rest easier knowing there is still an IDRA to take a stand. Paraphrasing A.A. Milne, “How fortunate am I to have been part of a place that is so hard to say goodbye to.”

*The first dropout study for Texas included the following components: Texas Dropout Survey Project: A Summary of the Findings (Cárdenas, Robledo & Supik); Vol. 1: Magnitude of the Problem – Census Analysis (Waggoner, D.); Vol. 2: Magnitude of the Problem – Attrition Analyses (Cárdenas, J.A., Robledo, M., Supik, J., Johnson, R.L.);  Vol. 3: Magnitude of the Problem – School District Research and Procedures (Cárdenas, J.A., Robledo, M., Supik, J., Cortez, A.);  Vol. 4: Magnitude of the Problem – School District Research and Procedures (Cárdenas, J.A., Robledo, M., Supik, J., Cortez, A. );  Vol. 5: Benefit-Cost Impact of the Dropout Program (Cárdenas, J.A., Robledo, M., Supik, J., Ramírez, D.);  Vol. 6: Program Responses – Their Nature and Effectiveness (Cárdenas, J.A., Robledo, M., Supik, J., Cortez, A., Ladogana, A.); Vol. 7: Study Methods and Procedures (Cárdenas, J.A., Robledo, M., Supik, J.).

Josie D. Cortez, M.A., is a senior education associate in IDRA’s Department of Civic Engagement. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at josie.cortez@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2015 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.]