Friday, May 16, 2008


“Someone’s gotta be last.” That’s the motto I once proposed for a Deep South state that regularly found itself at the bottom of statistical comparisons. The positions held by California, San Diego, and North County vis-à-vis high school dropout rates in a recent national study suggest another slogan: “It could be worse.”

According to an analysis conducted by (among others) Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance, graduation rates for the Golden State in 2003-2004 were 70.7%--slightly higher than the national average of 69.9%. San Diego Unified’s 61.6% (15th on the list of big cities) wasn’t half bad when contrasted with Detroit’s abysmal 25% figure. And North County came off looking good, comparatively, with rates ranging from a low of 61% in Oceanside to 75.6% in Escondido and almost 89% in Valley Center. Carlsbad, Fallbrook, and Temecula also boasted diploma ratios above 80%.

As these figures suggest (and as the APA announcement emphasized) suburban areas do much better than central urban districts. That’s hardly a surprise for adults who pay attention. Nor is it a surprise that graduation rates for Hispanics (57.8%) and blacks (53.4%) are much lower than rates for whites (76.2%) and Asians (80.2%).

On a less comparative note, General Powell observed that the nation’s 30% dropout rate represents more than a million students a year and constitutes not just “a problem” but “a catastrophe.” He also declared that “It’s time for a national call to arms”—a rousing martial metaphor reminiscent of the oft-cited 1983 education study, “A Nation at Risk.”

How seriously the education establishment takes this problem is indicated by the fact that no generally accepted formula exists for calculating dropouts. Recent estimates for San Diego County suggested an 85% graduation rate—much higher than the number researchers get by focusing (as the APA estimate does) on dwindling enrollments from ninth to twelfth grade.

Comments by public educators—which include the need to focus more attention on after-school programs, nutrition, and health care—also suggest that they consider the APA data less than “catastrophic.” Then there’s the observation that we need a “culture of respect” toward teachers, a comment that reminds me of Mel Brooks’ comedic prescription for world peace: “If everyone in the world would play a violin…”

Folks love silver bullets—from smaller classrooms to Finnish makerovers to more money. Realistic solutions, however, involve more intractable factors: bureaucracy, unions and tenure, rotten schools of education, lack of competition, illegal immigration, and negative influences at home and in the broader culture.

In his well-known monograph, “Defining Deviancy Down,” the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan noted that the correlation he discovered between school funding and educational achievement was abysmal—that a higher correlation existed between the proximity of state capitals to the Canadian border. Thus, his tongue-in-cheek proposal for improving education was to move states closer to Canada.

The most significant correlation in another study, Moynihan observed, was the parent-child ratio—a finding that’s also illustrated in the APA study, where divorce-averse Asian-Americans stand atop the educational heap.

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