California Dropout Study Sparks Controversy

California Dropout Study Sparks Controversy
May 1, 2008

A study of California's high school dropout rate has sparked a debate about the merits of nontraditional schools.

According to the study, 41 percent of California's dropouts come from nontraditional schools such as charter and alternative schools, which educate 12 percent of the state's children.

Critics of the study, released in February by the California Dropout Research Project--a Santa Barbara-based group devoted to researching and reversing the state's high school dropout rate--say it misrepresents nontraditional schools' true dropout rates because of the way the numbers were calculated.

"When you look at the California Dropout Research Project's own data, they put charter schools, alternative schools, and district schools in separate categories," explained Vicki E. Murray, senior policy fellow in education at the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based organization that promotes individual responsibility and personal freedom.

"Yet, they failed to separate the categories for this study, which skews the findings," Murray continued. "Alternative schools are serving an at-risk population that is more likely to drop out. So of course, they had more dropouts. I emailed Russell Rumberger, the lead researcher, and asked him why they meshed charter and alternative schools into one category, and he said for 'ease of presentation.'"



Statewide Problem

Using figures from the California Education Department, the study's authors found alternative schools had an average dropout rate of 50 percent, while charter schools had an average rate of 67 percent. The authors evaluated the 100 schools with the highest dropout rates, of which 25 were alternative and 17 were charters. School choice advocates cried foul because they believe the way the study's data are presented unjustly discredits the benefits of such programs.

But Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara and director of the California Dropout Research project, stands behind the report. In a February 21 Los Angeles Times article, he said the point of the study was to highlight the state's problem--not specific programs or schools.

"Is the school doing a bad job, or are the kids at risk anyway, no matter what setting they're in?" Rumberger asked. "This is where we should be concerned. If that many kids are dropping out, it's unlikely that you're doing a good job."



Different Results

Murray decided to rerun the data using the California Dropout Research Project's figures, separating charter schools from alternative schools in her calculation. She found staggeringly different results.

"When you look at the number of total dropouts in regular public schools, charter public schools, and alternative public schools," Murray said, "the total percentage of dropouts from regular public schools amounts to 50 percent. Charter schools represent 17 percent of the total number of dropouts, and alternative schools represent 33 percent of the total number of dropouts.

"The takeaway message is that regular public schools, not alternative public schools, account for half of all the dropouts examined," Murray concluded. "Putting what amounts to a handful of charter schools into that universe for reporting purposes doesn't paint the clearest picture of the source of California's dropouts."



Better Solutions

Rumberger's study lists a number of suggested reforms, including:

  • collecting and reporting better dropout data to improve graduation rates;
  • developing high school reform standards and "lighthouse" districts, which would contain several high schools with high dropout levels. Those districts would work as teams, with external help from better-performing regions;
  • fixing the accountability progress reporting system at the state and federal levels;
  • investing in proven dropout strategies to target the most disadvantaged schools and children;
  • reexamining high school graduation requirements; and
  • reforming middle school programs.



Faulty Methodology

Choice advocates said those suggestions won't do much over the long haul.

"He is coming up with conclusions that are absurd on [their] face," said Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association, a membership and professional organization serving the state's charter schools. "If you look at the methodology, it is faulty on a very basic level. The danger inherent in that is you're focusing the solution on something that California doesn't need right now--and neither does the rest of the country."

The conversation on how to best address California's high school dropout rate is sure to continue, but experts say it's important to know which programs are working and which aren't.

"It wouldn't be surprising if certain charter schools had a higher dropout rate because they enroll students that aren't thriving in the traditional public schools setting," Murray said. "So the fact that they have comparatively so few dropouts shows that charter schools are doing a comparatively better job."


Aricka Flowers (atflowers@hotmail.com) writes from Chicago.


For more information ...

"Solving California's Dropout Problem," California Research Dropout Project, February 2008: http://www.lmri.ucsb.edu/dropouts/pubs_policyreport.htm

"How to Reform California's Dropout Factories," by Vicki Murray, Pacific Research Institute, December 2007: http://liberty.pacificresearch.org/publications/id.3525/pub_detail.asp