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Q&A with Russell Rumberger: Reaching college graduation goals starts with fixing the high school dropout problem

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Russell Rumberger

In America’s push for education reform, the college completion problem is now under the microscope. The Obama Administration’s goal, for instance, is to have 60 percent of young people (aged 25-34) across the country with some postsecondary credential by 2020. But experts say this can’t be reached until another problem is solved; 1.2 million students drop out of high school annually.

There is a particular crisis in California. To focus on the dropout problem in California, the California Dropout Research Project was created at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Since 2006, it has produced a large battery of research papers and statistic sheets and made policy recommendations that have been incorporated into four Senate Bills. To learn more about the efforts in California, The Hechinger Report spoke with Russell Rumberger, CDRP’s director and recent author of “Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It.”

(Disclaimer: The California Dropout Research Project is funded by some of the same foundations that support The Hechinger Report.)

Q. You’ve done a lot of research on dropouts as part of the California Dropout Research Project. Could you talk more about what you’ve learned regarding why people drop out?

A. It’s mostly just reinforced what I and other researchers have found and known for quite some time, which is that there are markers in high school that kind of are the most immediate predictors of kids dropping out, like failing courses and severe attendance problems. We commissioned a couple of studies at middle schools and Robert Balfanz has done this work in Philadelphia that has gotten the most attention with respect to middle school predictors.

Is there anything specific to California in regard to the dropout problem in America?

There’s nothing totally unique about California, but there are certain things that are more important in our state than others. One of those things is English language learners because we have such a high concentration of them. If you look at our state and how it disaggregates our graduation and dropout rates by what they call program area, one of which is English learners, and they have just over 50 percent graduation rate, so quite low. And students who are classified as special ed are close to identical and have a grad rate just above 50 percent.

You spoke last week at Teachers College, Columbia University a bit about School Improvement Grant (SIG) money and where it’s not going. Could you talk more about that?

The federal guidelines for those moneys were based on persistently low performing schools, but historically that’s been based on test score performance not graduation performance. But then they added another category for schools that had low graduation rates. The problem was that in states like California where they use this inflated indicator of graduation we had something like only five districts in the state that fell in this category. There was no explicit mechanism to channel that money to schools that actually had high dropout rates. There wasn’t enough of an explicit attempt to focus that money on what I call the true dropout factories — those not based on percentages but dropout factories based on actual numbers of kids that have dropped out.

So the schools that are really producing the most dropouts in our state have not been recipients of these federal funds for school improvement, which is really almost the only game in town for turning around schools. So we’re not really turning around those schools. Of course, some of those schools in California are not regular high schools. They are these juvenile court system schools. But I still think there are strategies and things that can be done in those settings to address the dropout problem.

So what can be done to address the problem?

We don’t have a lot of proven strategies based on the What Works Clearinghouse criteria. Some people have felt that the criteria are a little too rigid, and I’m one of them. Nonetheless, we don’t have a lot of proven programs out there. There isn’t enough control at the state level, at least in California, to make sure these districts that are submitting plans to spend [SIG] money are actually hiring people that know what they’re doing. They haven’t been hiring these proven program providers. This is one of my sources of frustration. I talk to a lot of districts and superintendents and there’s a lot of interest in [the dropout problem], but they largely want to go their own way. But I’m not sure they’re pursuing the best pathway. We have a set of strategies to address the problem, but it’s all in how they’re done. There’s fairly good consensus on what needs to be done and the areas that reform efforts should address, such as student supports — that they need various types of supports to be successful — that the instruction should be more rigorous and relevant to kids and that schools and school learning environments should be smaller and more personable for kids. So those kind of general strategies are good, but it’s how they’re done that matters. There are all kinds of ways of providing support for students and I think some of them are going to be more effective than others. So if you just have a strategy that says ‘provide more support for students,’ and schools have a check list and say ‘ok, we have support for children.’ But is it good support? Is it helpful support? Is it actually producing any results?

You mention that districts don’t always use the proven programs that are out there and also that there aren’t so many successful programs so is it that the programs that do exist aren’t scalable?

No, I think they are scalable. That’s the frustrating thing to be about it. They are scalable. Some of these programs have been replicated. Take Talent Development high schools as a model: they are out there doing stuff, First Things First is another out there doing stuff. They have been adopted other places, but not as much as you’d think they would be given that they have this record. I think part of it is the cost, part of it is the reluctance to rely on outside expertise. I don’t fully understand it to tell you the truth.

What do you think of the Lumina Foundation goal of 2025 and Obama’s goal to have 60 percent of young people (aged 25-34) across the nation with some postsecondary credential by 2020? Are they realistic?

I don’t think the 2020 goal is realistic. In fact, I don’t think either is realistic considering the budget conditions that are out there. In California I don’t see any way — we’re just waiting for the budget to bottom out and start improving. There’s no explicit plan in our state to really ratchet up the number of college graduates. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and National Center for Education Statistics did the estimation on the number of new college degrees they’d need per year and it’s just a huge number. And I don’t see that happening in the short term. In the long term, maybe. But I think there’s a huge change going on in public perception and willingness to fund education generally and higher education specifically. The idea of public investment in higher education has really diminished a lot in a lot of places and some people say it’s never going to come back. With that being the case and all this college debt going on I don’t see how we’re going to really improve our college graduation rates substantially.

This interview has been edited for length.

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