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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.