Trying to turn tide of dropouts; Perry, Sanchez tout plans that capitalize on tested methods

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 41A

When the Education Commission of the States moved offices not long ago, Kathy Christie came across an old storage box and a lot of bad memories.

“The entire box will filled with nothing but information on state dropout prevention efforts from the 1980s,” said Ms. Christie, vice president of the Colorado-based research organization.

“I looked through them all and saw all the time and energy that went into them. And none of them had accomplished much. We ended up throwing them all out.”

For decades, states have been trying to tackle the dropout problem and keep kids in school all the way to graduation. Real, sustainable success stories have been few.

Mindful of that, the two major candidates for governor – GOP incumbent Rick Perry and Democrat Tony Sanchez – have come up with their own proposals for how the state can reverse its dropout rates.

Both plans chiefly rely on methods previously tried, with varying success.

Mr. Perry’s proposals focus on identifying and expanding successful, existing programs and putting more counselors into schools with high dropout rates. He also wants to expand after-school programs and summer-school programs for at-risk students.

“My dropout prevention plan will emphasize proven strategies to help schools,” he said.

He estimates his dropout proposals will cost $20 million, which will come from new funding attached to the recently passed federal education bill.

Mr. Sanchez, a Laredo banker and oilman, has put forward a less detailed plan centered on better diagnostic testing in early grades to catch academic problems before they develop into crises.

“Teachers will identify areas of weakness and target the remediation a child needs to progress to the next grade,” he said.

Mr. Sanchez’s major dropout proposal connects to his plan to make Texas’ testing system less focused on accountability and more on diagnostics.

He recommends allowing some students to take the state’s new test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, when they are ready, not when the state testing calendar dictates. Students who need help can be matched with a mentor to work through academic difficulties.

Teachers and administrators already use the state’s tests for diagnostic purposes to find what areas a student needs to improve in to pass. But Mr. Sanchez’s plan would add further “ongoing informal diagnostic checkpoints” at all grades to better track students’ skills.

Sanchez spokesman Mark Sanders said his plans will cost $43 million, funded primarily through a new restitution levy on convicted criminals. It would need legislative approval.

“People who’ve been convicted, you often find they’re people who’ve dropped out,” Mr. Sanders said. “So they’ll help pay to solve the problem.”

He also said Mr. Sanchez hoped to find private sector funds to match a portion of the state’s dropout prevention spending.

Good points to both

Ms. Christie, of the Colorado education organization, lauded Mr. Perry’s emphasis on identifying best practices – efforts that have worked – and duplicating them elsewhere.

“You don’t want to be giving kids more of the same that hasn’t worked for them,” she said.

She also supported the governor’s proposal to hire more counselors. She pointed to a recent survey of Colorado schoolchildren who, when asked how schools could best keep more kids in school, gave “more counselors” as their top response.

Mary Reimer, a consultant for the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, said Mr. Perry’s plan was too limited.

“They’re pretty much the standard things that everyone’s tried,” she said. “They’re good programs, but it’s kind of like trying to stick your finger in the dam after the water’s run out. It’s not hopeless, but most folks are finding out that prevention needs to start much earlier.”

She said she prefers Mr. Sanchez’s emphasis on early identification of problems.

“Most kindergarten and first-grade teachers can tell you who the children are who will struggle all the way through school,” she said. “If you can help them early, you can prevent them from dropping out later.”

Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan rejected the criticism and said changes under former Gov. George W. Bush and Mr. Perry have emphasized early grades, including major elementary reading and math initiatives and better diagnostic testing. He said Mr. Perry also supports more early diagnostics, primarily through online tests.

“In the coming years, those younger children will be entering junior high and high school, and they’ll be better prepared than ever before,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Turning to the Democrat, Mr. Sullivan called Mr. Sanchez’s plan vague and said the flexible testing system he wants would damage the integrity of the state’s accountability system.

Mr. Sanders, the Sanchez spokesman, disputed that, saying the added student data gained from flexible testing would make schools “more accountable, not less.”

Ninth-grade emphasis

Both Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Perry recommend strengthening the state’s current efforts aimed at ninth-graders, the year often cited as the most dropout-prone.

Texas freshmen are four times as likely to repeat the year than students in other grades.

Both want to expand the Ninth Grade Success Initiative, which gives grants to school districts to help freshmen’s academic performance.

Mr. Perry already has implemented one item on his platform: a restructuring of the Texas Education Agency to create a single dropout prevention division.

Laredo Superintendent Paul Cruz was hired this month to lead the new division.

Previously, piecemeal responsibility for keeping kids in school fell to many different parts of the agency.

But some researchers say that state-level dropout prevention plans, no matter how well-intentioned, are usually less effective than their proponents claim.

Mark Dynarski, a senior education researcher with Mathematica Policy Research in New Jersey, has scrutinized dropout efforts for the last 12 years and found that the majority have negligible impacts.

He said the most effective efforts are small-scale and target individual students, not broader populations.

“You can always find people who say, ‘We’re really excited about this program,’ or give anecdotal evidence,” he said. “But when you go back and look at the hard data, the impacts are usually very small, if they’re there at all.”