Original URL:  http://www.azstarnet.com/star/Mon/31006editdropouts.html

Taking on dropouts
Arizona Daily Star
6 October 2003
Editorial -- Tucson, Arizona

If Arizona has any hope of cracking its chronic dropout problem, it will have to build a focused, long-term and broad-based effort beginning at the state level. One Phoenix organization has announced that it is ready to take that on.

From all appearances, the Center for the Future of Arizona is taking a sensible approach that should, in the long run, yield positive results.

The four-point plan looks like a successful formula. Specifically, the four points as outlined by the center are: the development of consistent and measurable statewide data; the analysis of successful programs; the creation of a statewide consensus on the changes that are necessary to improve dropout levels; and the development of a 5-year plan to build on successful practices that have proven results. The first two goals will be the easiest of the four. The second two, agreeing on the changes and then creating a plan based on those agreements, will be tougher to do.

However, the center and the dropout initiative are headed by the former president of Arizona State University, Lattie Coor, a respected educator with a track record of educational accomplishments.

One of the center's more encouraging undertakings is its plan to define "dropout" in an effort to make sure the numbers throughout the state are consistent. Dropout statistics are easily manipulated. So while a district may be proud of a single- digit dropout rate, that rate may reflect numbers for a single year. A single-year "snapshot" does not reflect the more realistic numbers of dropouts over a four-year high school period, or even those who dropout before then.

More evidence that this effort is grounded in reality is that it will include a special study on the education of the state's Hispanics. Dropout rates among Hispanics stand as high as 50 percent in Arizona - unacceptable under any circumstances. However, some criticize those high numbers as skewed because they include recent immigrants. Nonetheless, the education of recent immigrants is no less important to the health of the state than the education of native born Americans.

The comprehensive effort will call on the respected Morrison Institute to conduct the Latino study. More importantly, the institute will study the schools that produce positive results under difficult educational circumstances.

One telling criticism of local districts is that they have not in the past taken advantage of the knowledge available from their own high-performing educators. The districts have allowed them to practice in isolation without tapping the knowledge base that would be useful to fellow educators. However, that oversight is becoming less common with the mandates of state and federal school reforms.

The Center for the Future of Arizona would normally be thought of as a think tank. But it is describing itself as a "do" tank because it will go beyond the study of a problem.

In this case, it is taking on a daunting problem entrenched in poverty and exacerbated by legislative underfunding of public education.

Finding a solution to the dropout problem will take massive amounts of determination as well as widespread business, government and educational support.

The alternative is a continued dropout problem that will eventually turn a vibrant Arizona into a state mired in poverty, crime and unable to participate in the world's emerging knowledge-based economies.