Dropping Out in the Windy City

Just how bad is the drop-out problem in the United States?  For years, we have heard the Manhattan Institute talk about urban drop-out rates of 30 percent, 40 percent, and even 50 percent.  At the same time, many superintendents would counter with rates a fraction of that, citing circumstances that Manhattan wasn’t accounting for.  Last week, Eduflack heard a tale (still to be verified) that until very recently one state was calculating their graduation rate based on the number of 12th graders who managed to graduate that year.  As to be expected, they had a pretty good grad rate.

Today, the CPS Graduation Pathways Strategy is to be released in Chicago.  Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the report cites recent Chicago drop-out rates of nearly 50 percent.  The most recent data shows a dropout rate of 44 percent.  The full story is here in today’s Chicago Tribune — http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-dropout_25feb25,0,1248671.story.  Thanks to www.educationnews.org for flagging it.

Why is this study so important?  We all know our large, urban school districts have long had a drop-out problem.  Heck, it was only a few months ago that many of their schools were dubbed drop-out factories.  While such rates are indeed alarming, they have long been part of the drumbeat of the need for reform.  We know kids aren’t graduating from high school, and we’ve known it for decades.

No, the important issue here is that Chicago is standing behind some very ugly numbers.  They recognize that the first step to improvement is strong data collection and strong data analysis.  Working with BMGF, they now know the true scope and size of the problem.  They aren’t trying to hide the numbers.  They aren’t trying to develop an alternative approach to convert that 44 percent to 32 percent or 26 percent.  They are laying out the cold hard facts, using them as a launching pad for substantive, meaningful reforms.

It isn’t often that we see a large school district go naked like that by choice.  Data is often a closely held secret, and one might need dual degrees in statistics and computer science to dig out meaningful information from a district website or  state education database.  This study, though, seems to lay out a frank and open discussion of seven years worth of graduation data for the Windy City.  And it serves as a model for other urban districts who recognize the drop-out crisis is a major education and economic issue.

As communication goes, CPS deserves a gold star here.  If the goal is school improvement, one needs to generate a genuine demand for change.  You need to demonstrate that is a significant problem, we know what that problem is, and we have the people and resources to fix it.  And that’s just what Chicago is doing this week (and hopefully well beyond).  They’ve identified the problem, and a 44 percent drop-out rate is definitely a problem, and acknowledge the softer spots such as male drop-outs and a high school population that is older than the norm.  They’ve assembled a team of educators, representing the central office and the high schools, to get to work.  They’ve partnered with BMGF to both study the issue and implement solutions.  Now they just need to convince parents, teachers, and the community at large to back their proposed course of action.

It seems straightforward and common sense.  But we don’t always see that in education reform communications, do we?  Yes, we have a while to go before we know if CPS’ approach is effective.  From the cheap seats, it definitely seems like their thoughts, words, and actions are pointed in the right direction.

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