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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is Spokane Public Schools a "dropout factory"?

By Laurie H. Rogers

(Updated: May 30, 2010)In 2010, The Spokesman-Review reported that Spokane Public Schools has a 40% dropout rate. If true, that would make the district a "dropout factory," as defined in a 2007 report from Johns Hopkins University that called some schools "drop-out factories" because they had a 40% (or worse) dropout rate.

The Spokesman-Review article didn't quote anyone taking issue with the validity of that figure, so I quoted it at a town hall meeting, and later in a Letter to the Editor. However, the 40% figure for Spokane is incorrect. The actual dropout rate for the cohort of students who were supposed to graduate in 2009 was 28.7%. Part of the confusion lies in the definitions. Who is a “dropout?”
  • Students who formally file papers saying they’ve chosen to drop out.
  • Students who haven’t been seen for a few months, so it’s assumed they’ve dropped out, but no one knows for certain. Maybe they’re foster kids, they’ve been in jail, they’re living in abusive homes, or their parents are homeless, transient or migrant. They do what they can. They don’t know when or where they’ll be going next.
  • Students who graduate with a credential other than a high school diploma (such as a General Education Development (GED) credential).
  • Students who need more than 4 years of schooling to complete graduation requirements (also known as “extended graduation rates”).
  • Students who left to be homeschooled or to attend a private or alternative school.
In 2008, former Education Sec. Margaret Spellings criticized states’ methods for reporting dropouts, saying the states tended to inflate on-time graduation rates. She said some reported only those students who said officially that they were dropping out, while others marked as “graduated” the students who left the school but promised to get a GED in the future. In April 2008, Sec. Spellings took steps to "ensure that all states use the same formula” to calculate graduation and dropout rates; to make the rates public; and to tie graduation rates to annual targets for the No Child Left Behind Act.

It's important to properly report dropout and graduation rates. Students who don’t graduate are at high risk of having limited futures. Speaking at a May 2007, summit in D.C. called “America’s Silent Epidemic,” Sec. Spellings said, “Today, a quality education is more important than ever and solving our dropout crisis is not just a moral imperative, it's an economic necessity. The United States has the most severe income gap between high school graduates and dropouts in the world.” In April 2008, she reiterated the message: “Over their lifetimes, dropouts from the class of 2007 alone will cost our nation more than 300 billion dollars in lost wages, lost taxes and lost productivity. Increasing graduation rates by just five percent, for male students alone, would save us nearly eight billion dollars each year in crime-related costs."

I note this difficulty in defining “dropout” as a way of showing support for administrators and journalists who struggle to put together relevant and consistent data that are based on fine statistical distinctions and the vagaries of human beings. After the Spokane superintendent and a board member told me the 40% figure is incorrect, I called the state education agency (OSPI) twice to ask for clarification of the data, and two helpful souls carefully led me through the numbers. Besides the issue of how to define a "dropout," there is the need to assign static numbers to mobile human beings. Additionally, the desire for clarity requires multiple representations of the data. It’s easy to misunderstand.

For the class of 2007/2008, Spokane’s on-time graduation rate was just over 60%. It had an estimated 29.3% dropout rate for all of the students who were supposed to graduate in 2008 (the cohort). The district's "extended" graduation rate was just 61.9%, meaning that once students fell behind, they tended to stay behind for good. The remaining 9.2% of students in that particular “cohort” were “continuing,” as in continuing to work on their diploma.

For the class of 2008/2009, Spokane's on-time graduation rate was 62.1%. It had an estimated cohort dropout rate of 28.7%, and an extended graduation rate of 65% for all students who were supposed to graduate in 2009.

In Washington State, graduation and dropout rates are reported on the OSPI Web site at this address:
  • Click on the link (at the top) for "Research and Reports."
  • Choose "School Report Card."
  • In the dropdown menu, choose your school district. (You also can define further, by school.) The resulting screen gives you data for your school district.
  • At the very bottom of the Report Card page, click on the tiny link for "Data Files." The resulting screen gives you "Demographic Data Downloads," "WASL Data Downloads," and "AYP Data Downloads."
  • Click on "Graduation Rates By District." (It's an Excel file.) You will see several categories for student data that are pertinent to graduation for all school districts in Washington State.
I looked at Data Files for 2007/2008 for Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma and Vancouver.
  • The estimated cohort dropout rates for the four districts for 2007-2008 are: Seattle: 32.1%; Spokane: 29.3%; Tacoma: 24.8%; Vancouver: 22.4%.
  • Spokane and Seattle also have a serious dropout problem in 7th and 8th grades. Spokane lost more than 5% of its middle-school students for that cohort, nearly 250 students. The dropout problem dropped off slightly in 9th and 10th grade, then roared back to life in 11th and 12th grades.
  • Spokane's problems continued throughout high school. At the start of 10th grade, 97.5% of students in that cohort were still on time to graduate. At the beginning of 11th grade, that figure had dropped to 93%. From there, the drops were dramatic. At the start of 12th grade, just 83.3% were on time. At the end of 12th grade, just 70.7% were on time. The cohort ended with just 60.3% actually graduating on time.
Is Spokane a "dropout factory"? It depends on your definition. Even with a 28.7% cohort dropout rate, the district obviously has a serious dropout problem. I have wondered what the district is doing about it, and I asked Superintendent Nancy Stowell the question at a February town hall meeting. She said the reported dropout figure was wrong (which it was), then she blamed the dropout issue on more rigorous learning standards. (That was odd.) In March, when Dr. Stowell clarified the dropout figures for me, she said, "The dropout rate at 28.7 is still much too high so we aren't making any excuses, just looking for programs that will work to keep our students on track to graduate and then making whatever technical fix we can to ensure that the numbers we report to the state are correct."

Three ideas that would help "keep students on track" would be: 1) Give the teachers and students better curricula that contain more content, 2) Allow the teachers to actually teach the students instead of forcing the students to teach themselves and each other, and 3) Remove from the school day 90% of the activities that distract from academic learning (such as the constant school assemblies, computer and calculator classes, games, parties and character classes). These ideas would improve so much yet cost so little.

I keep saying all of this to administrators, and I might as well be talking to the wind.

Meanwhile, the "Children's Investment Fund" (CIF) is a new tax initiative purportedly designed to help with the dropout rate. According to a Feb. 21, 2010, Spokesman-Review article, the fund would pay for "early childhood learning, abuse and neglect prevention and treatment programs, mentoring programs and before- and after-school activities." These CIF programs supposedly could improve the dropout rate by "up to 20 percentage points." There was no support whatsoever for this fantastical claim, and none of the CIF programs was connected in any clear way to dropout rates.

The CIF is just another grab for money from taxpayers' pockets to pay for nebulous, unproved, supposedly well-intended programs. Like all nebulous programs before them, they will be a bottomless pit, a black hole that sucks in taxpayer money and emits just 40-60% of available light. There are better, more effective solutions available that don't require additional money from you.

Dr. Lorna Spear, Spokane's Executive Director of Teaching and Learning, is conducting a study of middle schools. I'm told this is partly to address the dropout problem in the middle schools, but I can't say for sure. I've been asking questions about this study since Feb. 25. Initially, Dr. Spear was too busy to answer my email. Someone else directed me to the school board minutes, which didn't explain the study. Finally, after more queries from me, Dr. Spear replied on April 26 with exactly this: "The Board of Directors is convening an Advisory. I am working with administrators to read the research and determine best practices for middle level."

I thought that was her regular job. If it isn't, what is her regular job? Lorna Spear has a doctorate, she makes more than $100,000 per year, and this is the best she can do in answering a question about a taxpayer-funded study? It isn't good enough.

(Update: I called Dr. Spear's office on April 26 to ask for a meeting. A few days later, she called me back. I couldn't talk at that moment, so she offered to have her assistant call to set up a phone appointment. She had no time to meet, she said. Her assistant offered me 15 minutes over the telephone in the second week of May.)
(Update#2: Dr. Spear called me May 12 and told me she isn't doing a special study. She's just doing what she always does, she said - reading research and trying to improve the schools. I came away from that conversation without any sense of what specifically the district is doing with regard to the dropouts.)

Today, I gave Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell another opportunity to tell me what the school district is doing to address its low on-time graduation rate and its serious dropout problem. I'll tell you what she says.
(Update: As of June 11, 2010, I have received no response from Dr. Stowell. I think we can safely say I'm unlikely to ever get a response to this question.)

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (April, 2010). "Is Spokane Public Schools a 'dropout factory'?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: