Dropout Prevention and Student Engagement Strategies and the Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act

Verbal Statement of María Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.., IDRA Executive Director, before the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives – April 23, 2007

Honorable Miller, Ranking Member McKeon and distinguished members, good afternoon and thank you for the invitation to appear before you.

I am the executive director of the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio, Texas. IDRA is an independent, research and training organization. For 34 years, we have worked closely with schools, school systems, parents and communities across the country. Our goal is to assure that every child has access to quality education that prepares him or her for a good life and for a productive contribution to this great democracy that are these United States. We have partnered with thousands of educators, administrators, and business, family and community leaders to strengthen public education at national, state and local levels. IDRA designed and leads the award-winning Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, a model program that has helped schools in the United States and in Brazil succeed in keeping 98 percent of students in school and learning.

In 1986, I served as principal investigator for one of the first statewide studies of school dropouts. With that study, IDRA developed in Texas an enrollment-based methodology that has become the foundation for dropout counting methods by other researchers across the country, including the Harvard Civil Rights Project and the Urban Institute. That seminal IDRA study also looked at the cost of under-educating our young people. Findings from our annual cost study, when totaled over 20 years, indicate that $730 billion have been lost to the state of Texas alone.

With the magnitude of this loss, what is needed is a seismic shift from “dropout prevention” to graduation for all; and “all” must mean “all.” Many dropout prevention efforts fail either because they are too narrow, or piecemeal, or because they blame students, parents or minority communities for the problem. Dropout prevention efforts also fail because all too often schools plan for failure.

Recently, I was talking with a teacher. She had been hired to teach freshman English in a large inner-city high school. When she learned she had 38 students had been assigned to her class, she marched to the principal’s office and told him that she could never do a good job with 38 students in one class. He told her: “Don’t worry. In six weeks, your class will have 24 students.” The other 14, he assured her, will have dropped out within six weeks.

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

It is time to plan for success, not failure.

To move from dropout prevention to graduation for all, I would offer three primary recommendations focused at the campus, district and systems levels.

At the campus level, strengthen and support school-level change through Local Accountability Teams.

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

Local accountability teams would review their local dropout and graduation data, disaggregated by subgroups, as well as data on school factors affecting the graduation rate, such as parent involvement, student engagement, curriculum access and teaching quality. Using these data, the team would develop a comprehensive graduation plan of action to include all students. Funding priorities would be based on campuses with the lowest graduation rates.

Secondly, fund district-wide efforts that focus on elementary-to-middle and middle-to-high school transition points.

Research shows that students drop out at key transition points. Research also shows that there are effective strategies that create safe passage for students.

Targeted school districts would demonstrate use of effective and coordinated practices that align curricula, create cross-level student tracking systems, and that support joint planning and coordinated professional development. Funding priorities would be based on states and school systems with the lowest graduation rates.

Thirdly and finally, our recommendation is to fund the Graduation for All Act and comprehensive efforts that will address the issue of graduation for all students. I would also recommend that you designate a minimum of 5 percent of the NCLB allocations within each Title to efforts that graduate all students.

Planning for success obviously requires investment.

Designating 5 percent of Title I to address dropout strategies for disadvantaged students is clearly needed. Every component of NCLB can play a unique role in graduating students from high school. The same would be true for preparing, training and recruiting high-quality teachers out of Title II; improving language and instruction for ELL students out of Title III, and informing parents out of Title V.

If 5 percent of NCLB allocations within each Title were designated for graduation for all efforts, it would cost the equivalent of $900 for each of the almost 1.3 million students who have dropped out of school. Many schools in our country operate on a 180-instructional-day schedule which means that what is being recommended is a $5 dollar a day investment.

In this country, not so long ago, it seemed unreasonable to think that we would have universal education through primary school. We have that. Now we must have universal education through high school. Our children deserve it, our democracy demands it, and our economy requires no less.