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Dropout factories

by Camille Esch

California has a massive dropout problem: An estimated 25 percent of students fail to complete high school, ultimately costing the state billions in lost income tax revenue, crime costs and public assistance.

Last month, a study from UC Santa Barbara suggested that the dropout problem might be more concentrated than previously thought: It found that just 20 percent of schools account for 80 percent of dropouts, and that many of them are "alternative" schools that are meant to help students who have not succeeded in regular schools.

This finding has drawn fire from leaders of these schools, who argue that it's only logical that schools serving the most troubled students would have the highest dropout rates - it doesn't mean they aren't doing their jobs well. They make a good point, but their objections beg the question: How do we know if alternative schools are doing their job well?

The answer is that we don't have a clue. In California, there is no consistent approach to alternative education: All districts have "continuation" high schools, but they may also send students to county-run alternative schools, or may place students into "independent study" programs for an individualized approach. Districts also have wide latitude in how they assign students to alternative education, and for how long.

This level of flexibility is appropriate for a complex task like alternative education, but it needs to be coupled with accountability for results, and here is where the system breaks down. Thanks to legislative loopholes and an insufficient data system, we know hardly anything about what ultimately happens to students who are placed in alternative education, and in many cases, we don't hold anyone responsible for those outcomes.

Students who are failing out of regular schools often have learning disabilities, problems at home, mental health issues, or some combination of all of these - a challenging group, to be sure. Research shows that these students need intense, accelerated programs that provide plenty of individual contact with skilled, caring adults and that focus both on building academic skills and meeting students' social and emotional needs. In short, they need a well-coordinated, full-service program to get them back on track.

In many cases, however, it seems the students are getting precisely the opposite. Research on alternative schools and programs is scant, but what little there is has uncovered major problems: low-level expectations, haphazard instruction and grading policies, and ineffective teachers who aren't wanted in regular schools.

Worst of all, alternative education programs often give students less time in school, less instruction, and less contact with adults. For example, a very common practice is to place struggling students into independent study, where state law allows them to receive as little as one hour per week of contact with a teacher - a preposterous approach to take with students who don't have the capacity to succeed in regular schools. This is not a sound strategy for academic recovery; it's a way for districts to quietly give up on educating the most challenging students.

While local districts deserve much of the blame for the neglect of alternative education, the state is equally responsible. The Legislative Analyst's Office reports that state-level policies fail to properly hold districts accountable for alternative education and even encourage its misuse. For example, the state's regular accountability system does not hold schools accountable for students' performance when they have attended the school for less than a year - an extremely common occurrence in alternative schools.

Recognizing this problem, the state developed an alternative accountability system for alternative schools, but it is so flawed and inadequate that the analyst's office declared it "ineffective from an accountability perspective." And in the case of both long- and short-term students, no one consistently tracks their outcomes: Did they return to regular school? Graduate? Drop out? Without this, there is no way to compare alternative programs or determine whether they are working.

Given the endless list of education challenges we face as a state, it may be tempting to brush off the problem of alternative education on the assumption that we're only talking about a few "burn-out" type kids per school. But that is not the case: according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, 10 percent to 15 percent of all high school students go into alternative schools and programs each school year, and even more will do so at some point during their high school career.

If we want to make any headway on tackling the dropout problem, alternative education is a critical area to focus our attention. We need a much more rigorous and thorough system of accountability for alternative education. We also need more research to find out what's going on in these schools and programs, and whether they are actually helping students. In some districts - who knows how many? - alternative education is working, and we need to identify and learn from them, too.

Not every student can be saved, but none should be let go without our very best efforts to keep them and help them succeed in school.

Camille Esch is an Irvine Fellow, specializing in education policy, of the New America Foundation.

— Camille Esch
San Francisco Chronicle




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