• by Bricio Vasquez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November-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. One key figure oversaw the development of this key study and observed the effects that actionable knowledge can have on an entire population.
Changing Economy Requires a More Educated Populace
After coming to IDRA in 1976, 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.
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.
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
Dr. Robledo Montecel explains, “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.”
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 Dr. David Ramírez, conceived 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 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 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 1986.”
Figuring out how many students dropped out of school before graduating high school was a challenge at the time. 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, “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.”
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.
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 introduced House Bill 1010. 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 for 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.
Dr. Robledo Montecel explained: “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.”
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 said: “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.”
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.”
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
Dr. Robledo Montecel 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.”
She 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.
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.”
[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2018 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.]