Project Aims to Tackle Dropout Problem, California-Style

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Improving California’s education data system is often recommended as one of the first steps toward tackling the many troubles facing schools in the nation’s largest state. And right up near the top of that list of problems is the high school dropout rate.

The fact that no one really knows with any certainty how many students quit school before they graduate was one of the reasons for the creation of the California Dropout Research Project.

Headed by Russell W. Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the project aims to offer a California-specific focus on a national problem and identify remedies suited to the state’s schools.

“Some of the solutions will have to focus on English-learners, because that’s who’s dropping out,” said Mr. Rumberger, who directs UC-Santa Barbara’s Linguistic Minority Research Institute, which studies issues and provides professional development related to English-language learners.

The project involves a closer relationship between research and policy than is typical in most states. Since the initiative started more than a year ago, a policy committee has explored ways the state can respond quickly to the findings identified in the research.

Seen as Model

In one measure of its potential relevance for other states tackling the dropout problem, the project will be featured at community-based forums in all 50 states that Civic Enterprises, a Washington-based public-policy firm, is organizing over the next three years with the help of the National Governors Association.

See Also
See other stories on education issues in California. See data on California's public school system.
For more stories on this topic see Research.

“To me, it is the model of what could be created in other states around the country,” said John Bridgeland, the president and chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises. The organization is one of several groups drawing attention to the “silent epidemic” of dropping out of school.

Mr. Rumberger said a “confluence of things” sets the California Dropout Research Project apart, including the desire of the foundations financing the research to influence policy, as well as a strong interest in the issue from state Sen. Darrell Steinberg. A Democrat from Sacramento who served on the policy committee, Mr. Steinberg also chaired the legislature’s Select Committee on High School Graduation, which has already introduced bills inspired by the project’s recommendations.

Having help “to get on the agenda is a huge plus,” Mr. Rumberger said. “It gives you a platform for your work.”

Mr. Rumberger also said he was “itching to do something different” from just writing scholarly articles and waiting for them to be published in academic journals.

Lost Along the Way

A study says California’s official graduation rate fails to count students in grades 9, 10, and 11 who neither drop out nor advance to the next grade (shown here as unknown), and 12th graders who neither drop out nor graduate (nongraduates).

Economic Impact

To date, the research project’s work has produced a policy report, with recommendations for schools, districts, and the state, and a series of easy-to-read policy briefs that have been distributed to both legislators and schools superintendents across the state. The work is also being released a little at a time instead of as one hard-to-digest document, a strategy that Mr. Rumberger said “keeps the issue in the public light.”

One of the policy briefs focuses on the opinions and attitudes of California high school students and their desire for high school courses to be more engaging and connected to the types of careers they might pursue.

“Students were eager to see the relevance of what they were learning,” the brief says, “and wanted materials presented in a way that was meaningful to them.”

Even though California’s graduation rate can’t be accurately calculated without a longitudinal student-data system, it’s somewhere around 75 percent. Among African-American students, though, the estimated graduation rate is 57 percent; among Hispanic students, it’s about 60 percent. That compares with 84 percent for Asian students and 77 percent for white students. Among English-learners, the graduation rate is about 70 percent.

According to a study written by economists Clive R. Belfield, of Queens College, City University of New York, and Henry M. Levin, of Teachers College, Columbia University, the state loses $46.4 billion for each cohort of California residents that reaches age 20 without a diploma, after the lifetime costs of their lower earnings, higher medical costs, and increased likelihood of needing public assistance or committing crimes are taken into account. Each year, that number is about 120,000 young people.

“California would realize a sizable economic gain by investing in educational interventions that are both effective at raising the high school graduation rate and in generating benefits exceeding their costs,” the economists write.

Echoing a finding in “Getting Down to Facts,” a massive research project on California’s education system released last year, Mr. Rumberger’s project also points to the lack of information about whether the state’s structure of “categorical” grant programs is actually resulting in measurable improvements in schools with high dropout rates. ("California’s Schooling Is ‘Broken,’" March 19, 2007.)

“The state has various programs targeted to youth at risk, but the effectiveness of these programs is unknown because they are rarely, if ever, evaluated,” the dropout project’s policy report says.

New Standards Urged

In its recommendations for school districts, the report stresses that focusing just on keeping struggling students in school might not be enough for schools with large numbers of dropouts. Instead, it advises, “schoolwide reform strategies” should be adopted at both the middle and high school levels.

The report emphasizes that districts and schools probably don’t have the “capacity” to improve graduation rates on their own. And while it recognizes the contribution of outside experts, Mr. Rumberger described the use of consultants as a “necessary, but not sufficient,” approach to addressing the problem.

The state, the policy report says, should adopt high-school-reform standards, just as it has adopted academic-content standards, in order to give school personnel specific targets for improving graduation rates.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, signed legislation in October that will require schools to report 8th and 9th grade dropout rates as part of the state accountability system.

Eighth grade was included because of the evidence that many students begin the process of dropping out even before high school, and to give “middle schools a responsibility that they might not be so focused on right now,” said Susanna Cooper, a consultant to Sen. Steinberg. The law takes effect in 2011.

Legislative Response

In part because of the collaboration between the researchers and state policymakers, other bills have materialized as a result of the California Dropout Research Project. So far this year, two bills inspired by the research have been approved by the education committee of the state Senate.

One would increase schools’ target graduation rate for purposes of accountability reporting under the the federal No Child Left Behind Act from 83.5 percent to 90 percent. It would also require schools—as part of making adequate yearly progress under the NCLB law—to reduce by at least 10 percent the difference between their current graduation rates and the state goal every two years.

The other bill would give schools partial credit for helping students meet all the requirements for graduation in five or six years. Currently, schools only receive credit in the state accountability system—the Academic Performance Index—for students who finish in four years.

But some students need additional help to pass the state’s high school exit exam, and others lack enough credits, and therefore need more time to finish their studies, Mr. Rumberger and Ms. Cooper said.

Mr. Rumberger also believes the state should consider incorporating some nonacademic skills that are important for success in college and work, such as punctuality and community involvement, into its requirements for graduation.

He noted state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell’s announcement earlier this year that California would join the American Diploma Project, a network of states organized by the Washington-based organization Achieve that is working to match K-12 standards with the demands of college and work. But so far, the network has focused only on academic skills.

Jay Smink, the executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, located at Clemson University in South Carolina, said that because the California project is well funded, at $850,000 for roughly a year, it has covered an unusually large amount of ground.

“The project not only provides great information for the policymakers in California, it adds significant value to other researchers and practitioners elsewhere,” he said. “I am not aware of this kind of intense research in other states.”

Because Mr. Rumberger’s work has also raised new research questions, he’s now asking the philanthropies that paid for the studies—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Walter S. Johnson Foundation—to extend the project, possibly for another year. (The Gates and Hewlett foundations also help pay for work by Education Week.)

“I’ve kind of come to realize that the work doesn’t stop once the work is done and the policy recommendations are made,” Mr. Rumberger said. “There’s always a role for research to play.”

Vol. 27, Issue 35, Page 8

Published in Print: April 30, 2008, as Project Aims to Tackle Dropout Problem, California-Style
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