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Dallas Morning News


There's a Dropout Crisis in Dallas Public Schools

May 03, 2006

By Jay P. Greene

Just about everyone knows that Dallas schools are performing poorly, but sometimes it is useful to remind ourselves exactly how severe the problem really is.

In a new Manhattan Institute study, I estimate that barely half of the students who enter the city’s public schools earn a diploma. Further, Hispanic males are disproportionably likely to suffer from the dropout epidemic. Unless Dallas pursues dramatic reform of its school system, half of its students will be condemned to a life of limited opportunities.

For the class of 2003, the most recent year for which data are available, I calculate that the overall graduation rate in Dallas was only 54 percent. The odds that a student entering the ninth grade in Dallas public schools will earn a regular diploma are hardly better than a coin toss. This horrific graduation rate is low even when compared to other large metro school districts. Of the 100 largest school districts in the United States, Dallas public schools rank 80th in overall graduation rate.

Other large urban school districts, such as Philadelphia and Long Beach, Calif., graduate a substantially higher percentage of their students than does Dallas, though none of these other districts performs particularly well either. Ysleta ISD near El Paso is able to produce a graduation rate of 84 percent despite a similarly high minority student population. Clearly, demography is not destiny. Schools can and should make a difference.

Things are even worse for male students in Dallas, particularly Hispanic males. While 52 percent of Hispanic females graduate, slightly less than the national average, only 39 percent of Hispanic males in Dallas earn a regular diploma, far lower than the national rate (49 percent) and lower than most other major metropolitan school districts.

In part, minority males probably are leaving school because they are not learning sufficient skills for attendance to be worth their time. When students don’t have the basic skills to benefit from staying in school, minority males, in particular, might find short-term opportunities in the marketplace more attractive and are thus enticed out of the classroom. These opportunities could include jobs in construction or even in the underground economy.

If Dallas is to improve its graduation rate, it needs to improve academic achievement so that the opportunities provided by schooling — better-paying jobs over the long-term and the opportunity to go to college — outweigh the short-term pull of the labor market for dropouts.

How do we improve academic proficiency? Promising reforms focus on improving the incentives for educators to produce success for their students. Unfortunately, there are no meaningful consequences to educators for making wise or foolish decisions about the education of children. If children fail to acquire the basic skills that would permit them to learn, stay in school and graduate, no one besides the child is punished. There are also no rewards for successful educators who prevent these failures.

The district should look toward systemic reforms that can improve student academic proficiency by altering the incentives for educators. In particular, Dallas should consider programs that strengthen the accountability faced by public schools and their employees, such as merit pay for teachers or sanctioning low-performing schools more strongly. DISD might also consider school choice policies, such as vouchers or charter schools, which empower dissatisfied parents by allowing them to take their child to another school. Research has shown that reforms that focus on incentives can significantly improve performance.

To be certain, Dallas is not alone in the graduation crisis. There is near consensus that too few students across the nation earn a diploma each year. However, DISD is a major offender and needs to look for ways to improve the education it provides. When graduating high school is only a 50-50 proposition, it is time to consider dramatic changes to the system.

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