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May 25, 2022

It’s time to focus attention on California’s high schools

It would behoove this fall’s crop of ninth graders to take a
good look at the faces around them as they get acquainted with
their new classmates. The record shows that at least 30 percent of
those faces will likely be absent when today’s freshmen graduate in
the spring of 2008.
It would behoove this fall’s crop of ninth graders to take a good look at the faces around them as they get acquainted with their new classmates. The record shows that at least 30 percent of those faces will likely be absent when today’s freshmen graduate in the spring of 2008.

There’s no longer any argument with that number. Even state officials concede that only 70 percent of the high schoolers who should have graduated last June made it through. They insist that’s not a true reading of the quality of their efforts, though, as some students take more than four years to finish or get alternative diplomas.

Which means the education establishment still doesn’t want to face the fact that it is failing with about one-third of California students.

Sure, there are reasons for some of these failures and dropouts. In Los Angeles, for instance, about one-third of the 180,000 high school students are classed as English learners. There’s hope this number will diminish as the effects of Proposition 227 and its ban on bilingual education advance from elementary school into secondary education.

The critical need for progress in English learning in high schools becomes starkly clear from numbers produced in a summertime report of the Oakland-based Education Trust-West. That study found that where 77 percent of San Francisco high school students entering in 1999 graduated in four years, only 62 percent of Latinos there managed to get diplomas in that time. In Oakland, only 37 percent of entering Latinos graduated with their class.

The numbers for African-American students were about as bad – and language should presumably not have been a barrier for them.

And yet, most local school districts insist their dropout rates are much better than what’s implied here. No one can quarrel with them, because the state has no system to accurately track students who move from district to district or out of state.

At the same time, the Education Trust report shows things are even worse when examining performance beyond mere graduation. The study found only 23 percent of the state’s high school students entering in 1999 (whose normal four years were up last spring) completed all necessary college prep classes needed for admission to either the University of California or California State University.

Most damning were the findings that many schools don’t even offer all the needed course work – and that some which do denied significant numbers of students the opportunity to take them, either through scheduling conflicts or other problems.

Does anyone seriously believe fewer than one-fourth of California kids should be prepared for college? If not, it’s time for major changes in curriculum and expectations.

Such shifts are backed by state Schools Supt. Jack O’Connell, who sought this year to make college prep classes a requirement for all high schoolers in the state. But that effort got nowhere in a Legislature preoccupied with finding ways to save education money.

Educators need to ask themselves two uncomfortable questions: What makes so many students drop out? And why not make college prep classes available to everyone?

Many dropouts say they leave because they’re bored. Offer them interesting and challenging classes and many might opt in rather than leaving.

There’s also the matter of expectations. When administrators, counselors and teachers don’t offer certain groups of students college prep classes, these kids can come to feel that adults have given up on them, that no one expects them to succeed. Tell them they are expected to rise to challenges and most of them will.

That was one problem with the state’s quick accession last spring to demands of many school districts for waivers of the new requirement that all graduates take an algebra class. When last year’s students were offered an easy way out like that, surely this year’s would-be graduates noticed.

Time will tell whether the requirement will be enforced this year, or waived again. For most of the last decade, administrators and lawmakers have concentrated most of their policy-making attention on elementary schools, where class sizes were reduced and some teaching methods changed.

But the dismal bare numbers on both dropouts and college preparation make it plain big changes are now needed at the high school level. For without major improvement, public schools in this state will be doomed for the most part to producing a preponderance of graduates with little hope for major success in a society where education every day becomes a more critical requirement.

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