Attack the dropout crisis
Monday, July 21, 2008
Once upon a time, an American president challenged our country to put a man on the moon in a decade and we achieved it. With enough public pressure and strategic resources, California can solve a simpler challenge, though one that threatens our well being far more than any space race ever did: the dropout crisis. Let us resolve to cut it in half, or better, in 10 years.
We now know just how bad it is. Using a new and far more accurate system to track student enrollment, the Department of Education reports that one in four teenagers who start high school in California don't finish. Last year alone, more than 140,000 students abandoned middle and high school.
More than a wake-up call, these numbers mark a beginning - a baseline from which we can measure progress. The rationale for increasing accountability for graduation rates was always that we didn't have reliable dropout counts on which to base demands for improvement. Those days are gone. We can no longer hide behind uncertainty, and starting now, we need a campaign to end this blight.
That campaign needs two components in order to succeed: high expectations and greater support. We have only begun to ask our schools to attend to the crisis. My Senate Bill 219, signed into law last year, requires that 8th and 9th grade dropout rates be factored into the Academic Performance Index, the state's barometer of school success. The law takes effect in 2011, and now we've got the data to make it work.
But schools can't do it alone. That's why my top priority as Senate leader will be a comprehensive, bipartisan legislative strategy to transform our secondary schools into places where more students want to be. That means:
-- Scaling up what works. Data provides capacity to identify successful districts and schools and use those lessons to help those that are struggling.
-- More adults on campus providing support and guidance. Time and again the at-risk students who testified before my committee said it was a caring relationship with a band leader, a basketball coach, counselor, teacher or grandmotherly attendance clerk who kept them coming back.
-- Real alternative schools - not dumping grounds - for teens for whom the big comprehensive high school simply does not work. And let's agree that 3,000 student high schools with 50 percent dropout rates should be extinct.
-- Hands-on, rigorous career technical education that allows students to not only envision a professional future for themselves but puts them on a path toward college, apprenticeship or career and arms them to thrive in the new economy.
This is about more than just requiring all 8th graders to take algebra (which could be a recipe for more dropouts unless we commit to getting them the well-trained math teachers they need). Real change costs something - as every respected reform study has told us over the past few years. It's also about deploying resources differently. But what better rallying cry than a campaign to end the dropout plight?
This is a trifecta: an economic development strategy that can draw on high public concern about education and the environment. We're entering a brave new phase of our economy, and the renewable energy revolution could be California's next Silicon Valley, if we play our cards right. We must feed that revolution with skilled workers, from linemen and plumbers to product marketers and engineers. An educated and nimble workforce will strengthen existing businesses and attract entrepreneurial energy to ignite our future prosperity. We won't get there by losing 140,000 kids a year.
The costs of dropouts are well documented, the numbers increasingly accurate. Now that we know what we know, let's commit to graduating 90 percent of our kids, ready for college or career, by 2020. We can afford to do no less.
Darrell Steinberg is the president pro tempore-elect of the California State Senate. He represents District 6 and chairs the Senate Select Committee on High School Graduation.
This article appeared on page B - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle