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Drop Out Rates—Holding Schools Accountable

July 18th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon

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Yesterday’s LA Times editorial pointed to a dirty little secret
—no, make that a dirty BIG secret—that has long been denied by the Los Angeles Unified School District—namely the fact that it is in an LA public school’s best interest to let its low-performing kids drop out.

You see, if a school lets its low end kids leave
(or, in some cases, shoves them out the door) there is absolutely no penalty. In fact, there’s “a perverse incentive,” as one California lawmaker put it, because those kids who are struggling academically bring down a school’s overall test scores. And right now in America, educationally speaking, test scores appear to be all we care about.

At least that’s
what our existing systems tell us.

Here’s the deal: The way the state of California rates the performance of an individual school
(or a school district) is with a set of calculations called the Academic Performance Index—or API. And the way the API is figured has primarily to do with how that school’s students perform on yearly standardized tests. So if certain kids are bringing a particular school’s scores down and those kids start skipping school, or if you can give them a nice little push over to, say, a continuation school….hell, do it! Let ‘em go.

There’s no reason not to. (Except maybe the good of the community, the city, the nation…and one’s immortal soul. But who’s counting?)

Did I mention that continuation schools aren’t figured into
a district’s API score?

In terms of federal No Child Left Behind requirements there is a different system of assessment, but the same perverse incentives to get low performers O-U-T. The NCLB measurement is called AYP—or Adequate Yearly Progress. Basically, a school’s AYP is calculated according to how many of its students test proficient in math and English, plus whether the school’s proficiency scores have improved over the last year or not. Kids who are struggling in class are the kids most likely to bring down the AYP. Simple as that.

The net result is, points out the Times,
that “…California’s children are abandoning school at the rate of about 150,000 a year — a number equivalent to the population of Torrance, or Irvine, or all of Imperial County.”

In Los Angeles, specifically, the dropout rate hovers around 50 percent. And schools are doing little to stem that tide. In some case’s they’re actively helping the tide along by transferring troublesome kids from school to school for minor infractions until the unhappy kid gets the message and doesn’t come back at all. (LAUSD euphemistically calls this policy an “opportunity transfer”)

The consequence isn’t pretty:

We can squabble about the exact percentage of students leaving schools in L.A., but more than 35,000 students disappeared from the class of 2005 between the first day of ninth grade and the last day of 12th grade. Where do they go? Too often, dropouts fall into gangs and crime. Los Angeles is the gang capital of the nation. California has the largest prison population in the country, and more than 80% of the state’s prison population did not graduate from high school.

Yep.

So what to do?

The Times likes a package of bills introduced by State Senator Darrell Steinberg, that has recently made it out of committee and to the the Assembly floor. One of the things the package does is to hold schools accountable for their dropout rates—or partially accountable anyway—by factoring dropout rates into the calculation of the API.

Of course, the Steinberg bill package doesn’t address the NCLB end of the problem.
And it’s no kind of comprehensive solution. (For that we’d need…..you know…..better schools.)

But at least it acknowledges there IS problem.

Posted in Education, LAUSD, NCLB, State government | 10 Comments »

10 Responses

  1. Pokey Says:

    Understanding the dropout problem does not start at the school it starts at the home. I could rant and rave about the breakdown of the family and how children of single parent families are twice as likely to drop out, and how bla bla bla … should be blamed on …

    But instead, I will suggest what each of us can do. What I have done.

    Pick a child who is at risk and mentor that ONE child.

    For me, it was giving a neighbor child a ride to school every day for four years, all thru high school.

    - That child is now the first in her entire family to graduate from high school,
    - She is the first one in her family to go to college (now a junior and OCC).
    - She is the only one in her family to reach 20 without a child of her own.

    I understand this is not something for the light hearted, but it is very rewarding.

  2. Ishmael Says:

    Ms. Fremon, great, albeit, sober column.

    A small note of juxtaposition: I’m in the political consultanting business (name changed to Ishmael) and I know that some of the ‘leaders’ elected to the LAUSD have spent as much as half a million dollars to win a seat on the board. Quiet a disconnect, quiet a disappointment in the results. If only some more of the schools could perform as well as some of the campaigns.

  3. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Pokey, good work. I wish more people did what you do. Caring adults make all the difference.

    Ishmael (perfect nom de cyber for a political consultant), I agree bigtime. Oh, the sad irony.

  4. GM Roper Says:

    Celeste, my late mother and sister were teachers, my daughter is a teacher and I’ve been an associate professor at the local university. If families do not get involved with the education system, there is no way that the children will get involved with learning.

    Too often, I’ve heard from my family that parent’s yell at teachers when the child makes a failing grade. My daughter told me of an instance in which a teacher had one parent come to her and literally scream at her for the failing grade on a paper. In her anger, she accidently blurted that there was nothing wrong with the paper (including, I suppose, the more than 100 misspelled words)it was good the way the parent had written it (you guessed it, the parent wrote the paper, the kid copied it verbatum).

    The F stood!

  5. GM Roper Says:

    Celeste, my late mother and sister were teachers, my daughter is a teacher and I’ve been an associate professor at the local university. If families do not get involved with the education system, there is no way that the children will get involved with learning.

    Too often, I’ve heard from my family that parent’s yell at teachers when the child makes a failing grade. My daughter told me of an instance in which a teacher had one parent come to her and literally scream at her for the failing grade on a paper. In her anger, she accidentally blurted that there was nothing wrong with the paper (including, I suppose, the more than 100 misspelled words)it was good the way the parent had written it (you guessed it, the parent wrote the paper, the kid copied it verbatim).

  6. GM Roper Says:

    whoops, in the first post I misspelled accidentally and verbatim… oh well, maybe I ought to go back to school and brush up on basic English.

  7. Celeste Fremon Says:

    GM, I love your daughter’s story! I used to run into those very same ultra-charming parents when my kid was school age. (In elementary school I particularly loved the parents who obviously did their kid’s science project. My own son, who is a zillion times smarter than I am about such subjects, took to putting a sign on his project every year that read: NO ADULT HELP. MY MOM DOESN’T KNOW HOW THIS THING WORKS.)

    ****

    We’ve got great teachers here in LA, but they don’t have the resources to give kids what they need, they aren’t backed by the bureaucracy-heavy system, and they have 45 kids in a class room—multiplied by five or six periods.

    Regrettably too often the issue isn’t the overly-involved parent looking for grade inflation (that generally occurs in the more affluent areas, not the communities with the stratospheric dropout rates), it’s the parent who’s working three jobs or the kid who’s in foster care so there’s no parent involved at all, or the 120 kids in Los Angeles who can’t walk safely to school, or the kid—like one I talked to a month or two ago—who was trying desperately to stay in school but his depressed, subsistence-wage-earning mother had just been diagnosed with cancer and he was struggling to figure out how he could complete his homework and still find a job to support his mother and siblings. I had no idea what to advise him.

    Obviously, no school is equipped to handle all those societal problems, but smaller schools—where every student feels that at least one adult at the school knows that student’s name, and cares if they come to class or not—have a much better shot at dealing with the multiple underlying causes of our bad-ass dropout rates.

  8. Bob Says:

    Celeste, you say, “no school is equipped to handle all those societal problems, but smaller schools … have a much better shot at dealing with the multiple underlying causes of our bad-ass dropout rates.”

    That may be true, but it’s hard to see how the size of the school could make any difference with respect to what must be the number one cause of the bad-ass dropout rates: kids who don’t give a shit and will never give a shit no matter what their teachers, their parents, their schools’ administrators, or anybody else do. Kids who don’t give a shit poison the system and serve as nothing more than anchor chains weighing down, and eventually sinking, kids who want more out of school than just, yannow, being there. There is no reason why schools should pander to, or even have to deal with, kids who don’t give a shit; kids who don’t give a shit SHOULD drop out, sooner rather than later.

  9. maggie Says:

    I have to agree (with Bob) that there are certain kids who use up so much of a teacher’s and school’s time and resources out of proportion to others, that it becomes an impossible task, and just drains the teachers and resources. If a kid won’t make an effort, and a parent won’t help (as a single mom, I do take exception to the comment that single parents’ kids are likely failures: depends on the educational status of the parent, and/or motivation to help the kid succeed, AND whether there’s a divorced dad around to help out), then it does indeed hurt all the other kids.

    I wonder if this is similar to ESL kids who aren’t learning English, and are in expensive programs.

    As far as school performance ratings go: each school has a breakdown by ethnicity, where surprise, Asians and whites do score much higher than the school as a whole. (As for the excellence-demanding parents: I have found that mentality common among Asians especially, along with disdain for non academic values — something to look at in terms of the school “performance” rating, if your kid isn’t going to thrive in that sort of environment.)

    As the mother of a highly gifted child, I found that public schools jilt these kids most. Even in first grade in a good (Beverly Hills) school, my child was basically assigned to mentor a slow learner, and the teacher/principal argued that “it would teach him to be patient with others not as bright as him,” bla-bla. Each child deserves to be nurtured; when an adult like Pokey chooses to mentor, that is terrific. And as a white kid, no chance at a magnet school, even gifted magnets — and many kids at these schools have a hard time contending with the anti-brains/gang mentality at their host schools. (By nature, gifted kids are more likely to be readers or computer/science/math buffs, ouch on the playground.) Plus, “teaching to the test” takes up so many weeks of the school year, something private schools escape.

    One good idea seems to be the Sherry Lansing program to get retired people back into the schools as teachers; if they could be enlisted even as p/t volunteers to tutor reading, and math, that would be great.

  10. GM Roper Says:

    I wrote my comment without reading the other comments due to being pressed for time. Coming back I read Pokey’s comment and I am blown away with his heroism. Yes, I meant HEROISM – Actions above and beyond the call of Duty. That kind of mentoring Pokey, not only means much to the kid you drove to school, but may also mean much to her kids, her grandkids and her great-grandkids. A kindness such as yours multiplies itself x 1000 through the generations. Well Done My Friend, DAMN WELL DONE!!!

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