Conventional Wisdom on Dropout Rate Is Questioned—Impact of Higher Standards Is Not

Everyone agrees that even one dropout is too many, but what they can't agree on is just how many there are. Conventional wisdom has held that nearly a third of all students—and about half of black and Hispanic students—drop out of high school. In contrast, economists Lawrence Mishel and Joydeep Roy of the Economic Policy Institute contend that 80 to 83 percent of all students, 69 to 75 percent of black students, and 61 to 74 percent of Hispanic students graduate with a regular diploma.

The large disparities in the estimates are largely due to the different data sets and methodologies the different researchers used. Without getting into the technicalities (like adjusting for students who have to repeat a grade), conventional wisdom has been based on studies that compare the number of ninth- graders in a given year to the number of diplomas awarded four years later. Mishel and Roy examined census numbers and data from NELS, the National Education Longitudinal Study that tracked a nationally representative sample of eighth-graders from 1988 to 2000. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses—and are potentially reasonable ways of approaching the question. Most experts who have commented on the debate believe that it can't be fully resolved until better data are available.

But, there is one point on which the two estimates agree: Neither methodology has produced any evidence that tougher standards and exit exams have driven up the dropout rate. The conventional wisdom holds that the graduation rate has remained steady since the early 1990s; Mishel and Roy contend that the graduate rate has been slowly increasing since the 1960s.

Getting the numbers right matters: The best way to use resources could differ greatly depending on whether the national dropout rate is 20 or 30 percent, and whether the dropout rate among black students is 25 or 50 percent.

To read Mishel and Roy's report, "Rethinking High School Graduation Rates and Trends," go to To read a report that supports the conventional wisdom, see Jay Greene and Marcus Winters's "Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991–2002" at

Talk to Teachers Before Sending Disruptive Students Back to Class

Have you ever sent an unruly student to the principal's office only to see him return, smug and triumphant, in just a couple of minutes? Those of you who say no, appreciate how fortunate you are. Those of you who say yes—a thousand times yes—will be pleased to know of a solution proposed by a Maryland state legislator. Delegate Terry Gilleland, a 29-year-old former student member of his local school board, thinks that principals should be required, by law, to meet face-to-face with the teacher before sending the student back to the classroom. Maryland already has a law requiring the principal to confer with the teacher—but as teachers everywhere know, principals too often just send a note back with the student. A reasonable criticism of this law could be: Can't this be handled without another law? And we'd like to think the answer is yes. Unfortunately, the Maryland principals' association argued that scheduling a meeting with the teacher simply wasn't feasible, given the teacher's and principal's schedules! Of course, in the long run, the principal isn't saving any time by shirking the duty to discipline students and confer with teachers: When a trip to the principal's office means nothing more than a five-minute break from class, students' behavior deteriorates drastically. The bill didn't pass. The fact that it was even proposed is a reminder: Student discipline can't be solved if teachers don't get backed up.

The Problem with the "65 Percent Solution"

For the past several months, First Class Education, a Washington, D.C., based organization, has been campaigning across the country to enact laws in every state mandating that school districts spend 65 percent of their budgets on "classroom instruction." Dubbed the "65 percent solution," this scheme is purportedly going to reduce school "waste," thereby improving student achievement. If you believe the hype, it's a veritable silver bullet: A plan to increase money for schools without requiring an increase in overall education spending.

Unfortunately, the 65 percent solution uses a narrow and misleading definition of classroom instruction; it's based on the definition of "Instruction Expenditures" developed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). While NCES's definition includes the costs of teachers, teacher assistants, and most classroom supplies, it excludes staff and program costs for numerous essential services and supports, including libraries, guidance counselors, school nurses and healthcare, professional development, food and nutrition, transportation, custodial work, and building maintenance and security. As a result, the 65 percent mandate would only direct more money to classrooms if schools received the money they now receive, but no longer provided lunch or buses, swept or maintained the buildings, supported teacher professional development, etc. It's not a very serious solution, after all.

Recently, Standard & Poor's examined the 65 percent solution's potential to increase student achievement—and found that it had none. Simply put, some high-performing districts spend less than 65 percent and some low-performing districts spend less. But the researchers caution that, "these findings do not suggest that ‘money doesn't matter,' or that school districts should not dedicate as much of their resources as possible to the classroom. This is a laudable goal, but the percentage allocated to instruction may need to vary from one district to another for legitimate reasons. For example, ... districts ... may find that their non-instructional spending is largely comprised of fixed costs that cannot be reduced. These districts may find that the only way to allocate 65 percent to instruction is to spend more overall, requiring them to seek additional funding from local taxpayers or additional state aid."

AFT Teachers: We're Launching a Web Site with Professional Resources Just for You

The AFT has heard its teachers loud and clear: You want answers to your questions about instruction, student discipline, working with parents, and more—and you want them in the heat of the moment, not just in a workshop scheduled four months later. That's why we are unveiling a new, member-to-member Web site. At the heart of the site will be content from the AFT's Educational Research and Dissemination (ER&D) program, a research-based professional development program that the American Educational Research Association calls exemplary. Ultimately, this site will be a place for the AFT to pool the considerable expertise of its teachers, allowing members to ask each other questions, share their experiences, and build supportive relationships with fellow members. It will also contain videos of presentations by researchers, access to discounted graduate-level courses, and live chats with experts.

The new site debuts on July 31 with back-to-school resources. To find it, just go to the AFT's homepage: Whether you're a new teacher looking for a primer on managing student behavior or a veteran curious about trying a new classroom arrangement, there will be something of interest as you get ready for the first day of school.

Teaching Reading Is a Science

According to the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, reading is a struggle for more than one-third of the nation's fourth-graders. That's the bad news. The good news is that research indicates that the percentage of struggling readers could drop by two-thirds—and possibly by as much as 95 percent—by implementing a scientifically based approach to reading instruction. Unfortunately, that message is only slowly spreading across the country, and apparently has not made its way into most teacher preparation programs. In What Education Schools Aren't Teaching and What Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning About Reading, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) finds that the key components of a scientifically based approach to reading—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—are rarely taught in a way that conveys their solid research foundation. Typically, the scientific approach to reading instruction is portrayed as no more effective than any other approach. According to NCTQ, "How someone will teach reading is repeatedly cast as a personal decision to be decided by the aspiring teacher. All methods are presented as being equally valid, and how one teaches reading is merely a decision of what works best for the individual teacher. These assertions contradict widespread, compelling evidence to the contrary." For example, one course set forth the goal that, "Students will explore a variety of philosophies related to early literacy learning and will be able to articulate and defend their own ­philosophy." Before the science of reading instruction was developed, teachers had no choice but to develop their own approach—but today, a solid body of research exists: How children learn to read is a matter of cognitive science, not personal philosophy.

For NCTQ's full report, and to find the 11 institutions that taught all the elements of the scientific approach, go to

Freedom: It's More Uncommon, and Precious, Than Your Students May Know

"A long-simmering conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region exploded into widespread acts of ethnic cleansing, massacre, rape, and forced displacement in 2004. The U.S. classified the situation as genocide. Sudanese government forces and state-backed Arab militias killed at least 70,000 black Africans and created a massive refugee crisis affecting at least 1.5 million people."

So begins the section on Sudan in Freedom House's annual, comprehensive report, Freedom in the World. Teaching about international crises like the genocide in Darfur is a challenge. Front-page headlines may pique students' interest, but newspaper stories often don't provide the historical context and basic facts that students need to make sense of the situation. Freedom in the World is an excellent resource for teachers who want their students to understand crises, like that in Darfur, and their broader implications. The report includes essays by leading social scientists, evaluates the state of political rights and civil liberties in every country, and illustrates the ebb and flow of freedom in different regions and among differing cultures. The companion Map of Freedom is also a great resource: By categorizing each country as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free, it provides students with an instant portrait of the state of freedom around the world. We've alerted readers to this resource in the past; the tremendous response from readers prompted us to highlight it again.

Freedom in the World is available at While supplies last, teachers can get a free poster of the map of Freedom by calling Freedom House at (212) 514-8040.

American Educator, Summer 2006