The one-in-four dropout crisis

Almost one-fourth of California high school students quit before graduation, an alarming dropout rate nearly twice as high as the 13 percent previously measured.

By picking and choosing, it is possible to find a few hopeful signs scattered through the state’s record-breaking 24.2 percent dropout average. For example, during the past four years San Francisco schools tallied 21.2 percent dropouts and San Mateo County lost just 15.6 percent of its students. So neither county did as badly as the statewide rate.

But there clearly is nothing good about nearly one in four of California’s high schoolers leaving before graduation. Certain ethnic minorities — Hispanics, blacks, Pacific Islanders and American Indians — still have the most trouble staying in class. In San Francisco, 33.4 percent of Hispanics quit high school, while San Mateo County loses 24.4 percent of its Hispanic students.

Disastrous four-year statewide projections are that 42 percent of black students and 30 percent of Hispanics will drop out over the next four years. Ten percent of Asian Americans and 15 percent of whites will also drop out, which is bad enough.

At least these new highs do not mean the actual amount of dropouts suddenly doubled in recent years. Instead, it means the California Department of Education introduced a more accurate method of tracking every individual student in the state.

The Statewide Student Identifier System assigns each student a unique and confidential identification number, so that their performance can be followed more precisely than ever before. One disturbing discovery from the first report was that more than 50,000 students who claimed they were transferring to new schools last year never showed up.

Of course, the hopeful expectation now is that education authorities armed with better data will be able to focus more funding and greater efforts on the struggling schools where extra help is needed most. But similar past attempts have obviously accomplished little to produce better learning outcomes.

The main new revelation from better tracking methodology is that California’s school dropout problem is roughly twice as bad as previously believed. It comes as no surprise that lower-income schools with mostly minority and English second-language student bodies face the worst trouble.

California desperately needs to revamp its educational approach so that kids actually go to class and learn what they must know for achieving productive life goals. Otherwise, aside from the needlessly wasted human potential, studies have repeatedly shown that school dropouts ultimately require costlier state intervention — welfare, health care, law enforcement, etc. — an extra $50 billion yearly. It is only practical to invest all we can afford now to finally make the schools work, rather than paying even more afterward to clean up the messes left by hapless dropouts.

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