Education Letter to the Editor

On Dropout Rates, Methods Should Not Obscure Needs

April 04, 2006 1 min read

To the Editor:

One unfortunate implication of Lawrence Mishel’s March 8, 2006, Commentary is that it is OK to put our heads back in the sand about the need to improve our nation’s high schools (“The Exaggerated Dropout Crisis”). This would be a misguided, nay, tragic setback.

The data analyzed by Mr. Mishel and his colleague Joydeep Roy are as subject to bias and measurement error as those of the researchers they critique. Readers will likely be subject to more methodological sparring in the coming weeks.

It would be truly sad if we allowed these dogfights at 30,000 feet to distract us from the reality on the ground. Far too many high schools fail to prepare far too many youths for success in college, work, and civic life.

When researchers from the University of Chicago, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University have used individual-level data to construct and analyze longitudinal cohort-graduation rates in major American cities, they have continually found district graduation rates in the 50 percent range, and even lower rates for nonselective neighborhood high schools.

Our own research indicates that there may be as many as 1,000 high schools like these, where graduation is not the norm. We know where these high schools are located (in large cities and across the rural South) and who attends them (poor and minority youths).

There are viable strategies for improving these schools, and the systems in which they reside, that can help lift up rather than push out the students they serve. The national high-school-reform movement is addressing one of the most important civil rights challenges of our generation. We must keep this in view. And, as the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi said, “Then we have work to do.”

Nettie Legters

Robert Balfanz

Center for Social Organization of Schools

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, Md.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as On Dropout Rates, Methods Should Not Obscure Needs