Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bill will raise dropout age to 18

– But, how will we fund it?

– And, will it work?

The State Journal from Frankfort reports that a bill to raise the minimum high school dropout age in Kentucky cleared the House Education Committee yesterday.

House Bill 301 will eventually – in 2015 – raise the minimum high school dropout age to 18. The bill will start to impact students one year earlier when the current minimum dropout age of 16 will rise to 17.

But, will it work? And, can we afford it?

There are real questions about whether this bill’s largely indirect approach to improving high school graduation rates will really work. Will we trap disgruntled kids in school longer, causing more disruption in classrooms where other kids want to learn?

Teaching is key

The real factor in improving high school graduation rates is reaching kids with better instruction. That means improving teaching.

We know it can be done, as some of the charter high schools we have written about show. But – given all its restrictions like union contracts and a lack of a sense of urgency – can the public school system be as creative?

The bill changes little in this area. Ironically, language from earlier legislation directing the Kentucky Department of Education to “establish and implement a comprehensive statewide strategy to provide assistance to local districts and schools to address the student dropout problem in Kentucky” no later than December 30, 2000 remains. That provision is now ten years old. Yet, we still continue to lose about one in four high school students prior to graduation.

The bill adds some vague language about supporting “statewide strategies” (which are ???) and better targeting some existing grant money (which we haven’t figured out in ten years); but, overall, the main change in this bill is just to raise the dropout age.

Financial issues

There are other issues. Finding what Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg estimates will be an additional $15 million needed to keep all those extra students in school each year is a problem for which the current financial situation offers no solution, hence the long delay in the effective dates of this bill. Legislators hope money will become available, later.

Furthermore, estimating the real costs involved could be tricky. There are some complex interactive factors between possible changes in retentions in grade versus changes in dropouts. There is really no idea about the totally unknown amount of extra teacher preparation and training that may be required to really make this work to improve high school graduation rates.

I don’t think the true costs will be known until after the bill takes effect.

However, even if the up front education costs are several times the amount Representative Brandenburg mentioned, the likely overall savings to the commonwealth due to such things as better productivity and lower incarceration rates – let alone improved lives for the students involved – should be very worthwhile.

Old myths return

There is one bit of nonsense in the news report, but it isn’t the reporter’s fault. The newspaper repeats the inaccurate high school graduation rate figure currently published by the Kentucky Department of Education, claiming that rate was 84.5 percent in 2007-2008.

We’ve written plenty about those untrustworthy graduation rates and the more likely true rates such as here.

The real magnitude of the graduation rate problem

Right now, the best formula available to calculate rates for Kentucky is the federal government’s Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR). The most recently reported Kentucky AFGR from the US Department of Education is 76.4 percent for Kentucky for the 2006-2007 school year.

So, if our goal is to have a 90 percent high school graduation rate in 2015, the task is much more demanding than just moving up 5.5 points from 84.5 percent to 90 percent. We need to improve somewhere around 13.6 points, and that is going to be a lot harder to do.

But, if our kids are to have a future, we need to do something very different from what KERA has been doing for the past 20 years. Part of that solution could be charter high schools, which, as mentioned earlier, are showing success with improving high school graduation rates.

Charters, of course, are not part of House Bill 301, either. But, if our legislators really want to get serious about graduation rates, they should be.

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