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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Reforms not helping grad rates

September 25, 2001

From reduced class sizes to teacher and principal accountability to a steady diet of achievement tests and graduation exit exams, education reforms have come thick, fast and expensively over the last five years.

But in one key bottom-line measure, they appear to be doing little if any good. That vital barometer is the dropout rate from public schools. As schoolchildren began a new year this month, the tragic reality was that at today's rates barely two-thirds would eventually graduate from high school.

This miserable prospect represents a major decline from 25 years ago, when 76.1 percent of California schoolkids graduated from high school.

There is no proof of a connection, but the fact that the class of 1999 posted just a 68.3 percent graduation rate and last year's rate was only a tad higher at 68.7 percent may have something to do with this state's burgeoning prison population.


Tougher sentencing laws no doubt helped make the California prison population eight times higher today than 20 years ago. But when 80 percent of those in prison are high school dropouts, it's pretty plain there's a link between the rising number of convicts and the diminished rate of high school graduation.

Says Alan Bonsteel, president of California Parents for Educational Choice, "An electricity shortage like this year's will fade, but a dropout is forever. Half a century from now, our dismal dropout rate will still have tragic effects on California."

Besides criminality, what are those effects? One is that California companies must constantly seek employees from out of state or even from foreign countries because public schools are not turning out enough qualified workers for today's high-tech economy. Another is a large percentage of Californians are condemned to a lifetime in dead-end jobs. They didn't value education enough to stay in school, so they are likely to pass along the same values to their children, thus perpetuating a large undereducated underclass for generations.

But the actual figures may be even worse than those reported here, which come from the state Department of Education, for school districts are free to report whatever graduation rates they choose, with no oversight from anyone.

While the vast majority of the state's school districts report single-digit dropout rates far lower than the statewide figures, numbers from some of the largest districts are the worst. Los Angeles, for instance, reports that only 50.7 percent of ninth-graders who began the 1996 school year actually graduated. The number was staggeringly lower in San Bernardino, where only 42 percent made it through high school.

Does anyone really believe that dropout rates are as much as six times higher in these big — but honest — districts than in smaller ones with similar demographics where the reported graduation figures are much better?

Far more likely is that many administrators sugar-coat their numbers to hide the fact that they are not doing enough to motivate this state's youth to stay in school. Not incidentally, doing this helps keep their own high-paying positions safe. State officials say it will be at least 2005 before they have anything approximating a truly reliable measure of dropout and graduation rates.

"We must do more to ensure that our students graduate from high school," says state Schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin. "More than ever before, our young people need to understand that if they do not have a diploma, their prospects for the future are greatly diminished."

But she's had almost eight years to work on the problem, and it is as bad as ever, or worse.

All of which makes next year's election to replace Eastin one of the most important in decades, even if it will get far smaller headlines than the run for governor. Every candidate in this nominally non-partisan race should be asked for specific plans to increase graduation rates.

Nothing less than the future of California is at stake.

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