By Daniel Weintraub
California Health Report
As California heads into a future dominated by technology, a skilled workforce is going to be more important than ever. But despite recent gains, the state is still not producing enough educated workers to fill all the jobs that are open — a cruel paradox in a time of persistently high unemployment.
Only 78.5 percent of the students who started high school with the class of 2012 left with a diploma four years later, according to the latest figures released by the state Department of Education, up from 77.1 in the class of 2011.
About 13.2 percent were officially listed as drop-outs in the most recent year, but that does not include students who have been in high school longer than four years without graduating, students who left after four years without a diploma, and special education students who do not graduate.
The drop-out number also does not account for kids who quit school before they ever reach 9th grade.
State schools Supt. Tom Torlakson welcomed the latest numbers, saying they show steady improvement. But he said the drop-out figures are still too high, especially given the gap between white and Asian-American students, who graduate in numbers higher than the statewide average, and blacks and Latinos, who drop out more often.
“We have a long ways to go in all of these sectors,” Torlakson said. “We’d like to see the statewide average move up to 80 to 85 percent, to 90 percent. We’d like to see this achievement gap close even more rapidly.”
As an aside, the state has made some important progress lately in tracking these numbers. Until recently, when a student left a school or a district, there was no way to know whether he or she had enrolled elsewhere, making graduation and drop-out numbers unreliable.
But beginning in 2009, students were assigned unique identifying numbers that follow them from kindergarten through graduation. That’s made it much easier to track with accuracy what happens to a student who leaves a school before completing 12th grade.
There are still flaws in the system, especially when it comes to assessing student performance at individual schools and districts. When struggling students transfer from a regular school to a continuation school run by a county office of education, for example, they are not counted as drop-outs from the original campus, even if they quit school altogether a few weeks later. There’s also no way to be sure that schools are accurately counting the number of students reported as transferring to schools in another state.
But the numbers are a lot more accurate than they used to be. And they are leading to increased focus on improving the achievement of minority students.
The Latino graduation rate for the class of 2012 was 73.2 percent. For African-Americans, it was 65.7 percent.
Pamela Short Powell, president of the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators, said recent gains – the graduate rate for black students climbed 2.9 percent last year – are welcome but not enough. California is trying to reach a national goal of graduating 90 percent of students by 2020, and Short Powell notes that African American numbers will have to improve at a faster rate than they have been to get there.
“There’s no doubt that African-American young people are still lagging behind their peers,” she said.
And this isn’t just about numbers and goals. Lives are at stake. High school drop-outs are four times more likely to be unemployed as college graduates, according to the National Drop-out Prevention Center, and, on average, high school graduates earn $143 more per week than drop-outs. Those who leave high school without graduating are also more likely to be on public assistance, and 82 percent of prison inmates are high school drop-outs.
There are also broader concerns, for society.
A study of job openings and education by the Brookings Institution last year found some eye-opening patterns. It turns out that in many places in California and elsewhere, there were more job openings than there were unemployed people. The problem lay in a mismatch: those looking for work didn’t have the education to fill the jobs that were open.
In Modesto, for example, there were 10 job openings for every unemployed worker with a bachelor’s degree, and in Bakersfield there were 11.5 job such openings. That was 10 times the number of job opportunities available for every unemployed worker with just a high school diploma, let alone the high school drop-outs.
Another way of looking at the same issue is to examine the gap between the number of jobs requiring a college education and the number of workers who have one. San Jose led the nation in the percentage of job openings requiring at least a bachelor’s degree, at 56 percent, but only 35 percent of unemployed workers in that area had one. In Los Angeles-Orange County metro area, 44 percent of openings required a degree, while just 29 percent people seeking work had graduated from college.
But too many students can’t even dream yet of a college degree. A high school diploma is the problem. And the problems that got them there started long before high school.
One of the big indicators of future success is the ability to read by third grade. After that point, students start using their reading skills in social studies and science, and if they are struggling with reading, that handicap puts them further behind in the other subjects too. A similar indicator is a student’s mastery of algebra by 8th grade.
Another red flag is chronic absenteeism, when students miss more than 10 percent of instructional days. In some low-income communities, kindergarteners are missing school nearly 20 percent of the time.
“Without intervention,” Torlakson said, “a child may lose up to a year of education by the time they are in 8th or 9th grade. If you are absent that much you are falling behind.” Eventually, frustration sets in and students who can’t keep up simply give up, putting themselves, in too many cases, on a road to a lifetime on the edges of mainstream society.
The state and local school districts have programs aimed at all of these issues, and it is safe to say that nearly every district in the state is focused on closing the achievement gap – and the graduation gap — among the racial and ethnic groups. Their success or failure will play a huge role in shaping what kind of state California turns out to be over the next quarter century.
Daniel Weintraub has covered public policy in California for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org