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Dropouts: Accurate numbers essential to finding solutions
Arizona Daily Star
November 23, 2003

By Rick Wilson and Jim Kiser

Arizona's dropout rate is the worst in the nation, with nearly one out of every nine high school students leaving school without graduating, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

This high dropout rate has been an embarrassment to the state for years, prompting prominent educators, business leaders and public policy officials to call for educational reform. Both Bruce Babbitt and Fife Symington launched school improvement studies when they were governor.

Yet, over time, the result has been little improvement, with the dropout rates among some groups actually worsening. However, without downplaying the severity of the problem, there is room to question whether the statistics underlying those low rankings are accurate.

State Superintendent Tom Horne made that point in his response to the center's study. Horne said Arizona's method of calculating dropouts tends to artifically inflate the rate.

In addition, he said he wasn't sure Arizona does a thorough job of tracking students who transfer from school to school.

Some may see Horne's response as obstructionism. We are convinced Horne has a point.

Indeed, a September study from Arizona State University concluded Arizona lacks "a consistent, accurate and reliable method of tracking dropout rates." The report said, rightly, that this failure "makes it difficult for policy makers to assess the magnitude of the dropout problem and establish remedies."

Thus, it was welcome news when the Center for the Future of Arizona announced it was ready to take on the school dropout problem in Arizona. The center's membership includes a number of highly respected Arizonans, not the least of whom is Lattie Coor, the former president of Arizona State University, who now heads the center.

The center has vowed to develop consistent and measurable statewide data and, in doing so, plans to define "dropout" to ensure consistency. This is critical to finally getting a handle on the full scope of the problem.

Defining "dropout" may prove more troublesome than than it appears to be. For example, the focus mostly is on high school dropouts. That doesn't take into account the ever-growing problem of students dropping out of school before even entering high school. Then how does one account for students who return to school and complete their education two or three years after dropping out?

Moreover, are students who drop out of school but later obtain their GED considered dropouts or graduates? It is a significant number. In the 2000-2001 census, 25 percent of Arizonans counted as high school graduates had obtained a GED.

Once the numbers are gathered and assessed, they must be broken into their components. Previous statewide efforts to improve graduation rates simply lumped all dropouts into a single category: "dropouts." Thus, proposed remedies and practices were not tailored to the uniqueness of the various subgroups.

The education of American Indian children is a good example of the disconnection that often occurs when practice isn't tailored to the idiosyncrasy of a culture. The dropout rates among Indians are the worst of the various sub-groups in Arizona.

Yet the research has demonstrated that, as a general rule, Inidans perform much better in school and have higher levels of satisfaction with their schooling when teaching strategies such as cooperative learning, in which children work in teams, are regularly employed.

Not surprisingly, the research also indicates that cooperative learning is a seldom-used strategy when teaching Indian children in the public schools. Little wonder that improvement in the graduation rates of Indians has been slow to come.

A key component of the center's plan is the promise to conduct an analysis of successful dropout-prevention strategies and to incorporate those proven strategies in a five-year plan to improve Arizona's graduation rate.

The center plans to focus on what works. This is good, but its researchers should be sure to consider charter, private and religious schools, as well as the traditional public schools.

There is a growing belief among some that the existing paradigms of public education - the way schools are organized and children are taught - will never produce significantly better results with students who are the most likely to drop out.

To fail to take into account proven strategies in the nontraditional, nonpublic schools, is to ignore potential solutions.

Perhaps the greatest failing of previous statewide attempts to improve graduation rates, one we hope the center will avoid, was to assume that the dropout problem lies exclusively at the feet of the public schools.

All we needed to do was "fix" the schools, it was assumed, and the problem would go away.

To be sure, the schools do need some "fixing." However, the research reveals that many of the factors influencing children's performance have little to do with the schools.

These include the amount of encouragement and help with schoolwork children receive at home and their overall health, nutrition, amount of sleep and feelings of safety.

Dropout rates as high as those in Arizona not only speak to a failure of schools but also of home, community and state to properly care for, nurture and mentor a significant number of our children and young people.

This is the true shame of Arizona's dropout rate. If the state is to improve, more than just the schools will need to undergo profound change.

And so it is with the Center for the Future of Arizona's noble initiative to improve Arizona's graduation rate. The center has a sensible plan and says it is a "do" tank that will go beyond a study of the problem. Let's hope so.

We must trust that the center also has the sustained willpower to take on existing biases, beliefs and practices in our education system, communities and state.

From our view, failure to do so will result in their initiative becoming another one of Arizona's endless "I'm OK, you're OK" gatherings - involving a lot of important people - that in the end changes nothing.

* Rick Wilson is a political consultant and a former school superintendent. Jim Kiser is the Star's editorial page editor.