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Solving California’s Dropout Crisis: Report Pegs Annual Dropout Cost at $46.4 Billion

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"We need to get serious about solving the dropout crisis and doing so will require a combination of pressure and support from the state, and commitment to implement reform standards in districts and schools where the problem is most severe."

Every year, the 120,000 students who reach age twenty without a high school diploma cost California $46.4 billion in lower incomes, increased crime, and higher spending on health care and welfare over the course of their lifetimes, according to Solving California’s Dropout Crisis, a new report from the California Dropout Research Project (CDRP). To help solve the dropout crisis, CDRP calls for modifying the state’s accountability system, improving its data system, and building the capacity of schools districts, and the state to address the problem.

“Coordination among all players-the state, school district and schools-is essential to raising graduation rates.” said CDRP Director Russell W. Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We need to get serious about solving the dropout crisis and doing so will require a combination of pressure and support from the state, and commitment to implement reform standards in districts and schools where the problem is most severe.”

The report adds that California’s dropout problem has serious ramifications for the state’s future workforce needs. For example, if current trends continue, only 33 percent of California’s workforce will have a college degree, but 39 percent of the jobs in the state will require a college degree. On the other end of the spectrum, California will have twice as many workers without a high school diploma (22 percent) as jobs to support them (11 percent).

In examining the state’s current approaches to reduce dropout rates, CDRP finds several inadequacies. Chief among them is California’s accountability system which, the report says, “not only fails to improve the dropout problem, [but] it actually contributes to it.” Because dropout and graduation rates are not included in the state’s accountability system and only minimal improvement in graduation rates is required under the No Child Left Behind Act, the “resulting pressure on improving test scores puts considerable pressure on schools to push low performing students into alternative schools as a way of evading accountability for them,” the report reads.

In its blueprint for action, the CDRP calls for systemic change that improves the capacity of schools, districts, and the California Department of Education. While it acknowledges that capacity-building approach will be time-consuming, it also outlines several steps that the state can take immediately, such as modifying the accountability system and developing a more comprehensive educational data system to monitor student progress.

The report also includes action items for individual districts and schools. At the district level, CDRP calls on districts to draw attention to the dropout problem and mobilize the community to help address it, and to target academic and social supports to at-risk students. Meanwhile, individual schools should create personalized learning environments for students and teachers and provide rigorous instruction that is connected to the real world.

In reaction to the report, Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of schools, said that the state is “on the road” to building a data system that will allow it to track dropout and graduation rates. “At the same time,” he added, “it is also long overdue for us to begin shifting the conversation from how we calculate dropout rates to how we can effectively lower them before even more kids miss out on their deserved shot at a bright future.”

The complete report is available at http://www.lmri.ucsb.edu/dropouts/pubs_policyreport.htm.

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