Back to Basics: Why Does High School Fail So Many?

Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 29, 2006

On a September day 4 1/2 years ago, nearly 1,100 ninth-graders—a little giddy, a little scared—arrived at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. They were fifth-generation Americans and new arrivals, straight arrows and gangbangers, scholars and class clowns.

On a radiant evening last June, 521 billowing figures in royal blue robes and yellow-tasseled mortarboards walked proudly across Birmingham’s football field, practically floating on a carpet of whoops and shouts and blaring air horns, to accept their diplomas.

It doesn’t take a valedictorian to do the math: Somewhere along the way, Birmingham High lost more than half of the students who should have graduated.

What happened to the Class of 2005?

It is a crucial question, not just for Birmingham but for all American schools.

High school dropouts lead much harder lives, earn far less money and demand vastly more public assistance than their peers who graduate.

To understand why students leave high school and what they do next, six Times reporters and two photographers spent eight months studying Birmingham—by most measures a typical Los Angeles high school—and interviewing hundreds of former students and their parents, teachers, friends and siblings.

These students failed high school and high school failed them. Yet most haven’t given up on education.

The most likely place to find someone who had left Birmingham turned out to be in another school. More than 350 members of the Class of 2005 left to study elsewhere—about half at other traditional high schools and about half at alternatives like vocational school or independent study.

Those who transferred to traditional schools were more likely than not to graduate on time. But of those who went to alternative schools, fewer than one in three received a diploma or its equivalent.

The more students transferred, the less likely they were to graduate—an ominous development in a district in which one-quarter of the students change schools annually. Of 18 students who attended three or more schools, only one graduated.

For students at Birmingham, the act of dropping out was generally the last twist in a long downward spiral. Sometimes it began as early as elementary school. Year after year, students were allowed to fail upward, promoted despite a trail of Ds and Fs.

“Here you can get straight Fs,” said Barbara Mezo, a teacher at Mulholland Middle School, which sends students to Birmingham, “and the best they can do is keep you out of eighth-grade graduation ceremony.”

Then came high school, where credits were granted only for passing grades. Failing students found themselves on a treadmill, never reaching their goal of 230 credits for graduation. And with an increased focus on improving student performance, schools have little incentive to keep those who fail.

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For many students, frustration over failure was compounded by personal problems—pregnancies, financial pressure to work, drugs, brushes with the law. Parents became ill or died, sometimes violently. One girl lost her boyfriend when he was shot seven times in the chest. There was often pressure from friends who were also failing.

Many began cutting classes and were surprised to find that there were few, if any, consequences. Soon, some were racking up 30 or 40—even 60—absences in a 90-day semester.

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The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, in conjunction with UCLA, produced a controversial report last spring saying that official dropout statistics in California’s largest school districts were shockingly out of sync with reality. The researchers found that only 48% of the L.A. Unified students who started ninth grade in 1999 graduated four years later. The district claims a graduation rate of 66%.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who wants to take over the school district, jumped on the study to assert that half of the students in L.A. Unified were dropping out.

School district officials said that was wrong, since the UCLA numbers included as dropouts students who had left to continue their education elsewhere. They put the dropout rate for 2003-04 at 33%.

One of the problems with trying to understand the dropout problem is that experts can’t even agree on the definition of a dropout: Should it include, for instance, a student who quits school but continues in home study that is unlikely to lead to graduation?

The debate can be seen in microcosm at Birmingham High. UCLA calculated the graduation rate at Birmingham at 50%. L.A. Unified, using federal formulas, puts it at nearly 80%, with just 3.5% classified as dropouts.

School officials make no pretense of defending that dropout figure. Schools Supt. Roy Romer was flabbergasted when he heard it. “Whoa! Wait a minute!” he said. “Can you tell me that number again?”

But they also believe the dropout rate is not as high as UCLA’s figures imply.

The Times determined that at least 53% of the students who began at Birmingham in ninth grade graduated four years later, many from other schools.

At least 9% more were continuing their education, most of them hoping to graduate eventually. At least 12% were not in school of any kind. The rest couldn’t be found, although extensive inquiries at area schools suggested most were not active students.

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The most common last name at Birmingham now is Garcia, closely followed by Hernandez and Martinez. Two-thirds of the student body is Latino; fewer than one in six students is non-Hispanic white. Many students are immigrants or the children of immigrants; roughly one-third of the students are learning English as a second language.

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But teachers also are among the first to admit that, for many students, the traditional American high school is broken. They can’t handle its academic rigor and they chafe at its restrictions.

The large, comprehensive high school—the place where most Americans learned to calculate pi and compete for prom dates—is a 20th century invention that managed to both mirror and feed a giant industrial economy.

Throughout its history, it has been at the center of a tug of war between advocates of rigorous academic standards and those who believed in more of a smorgasbord approach to education.

During the 1950s, the buffet approach was ascendant: Schools tried to offer something for everyone, from Latin and calculus for the college-bound to vocational education and home economics for those considered unlikely or unable to continue their education.

But eventually, the tracking system went the way of bobby sox and bomb shelters.

Today, the operating philosophy is that every student should be prepared for college, and high schools have little room for courses that don’t further that goal.

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But simply accounting for students who leave doesn’t tell the whole story. The drive to improve student achievement in American schools has created a perverse incentive for schools to push out struggling students, ideally without having to count them as dropouts.

These are the students who drag down standardized test scores, leading to penalties for their schools under school accountability measures that include the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Without them, test score averages rise. If a student can be counted as having left the country or as having transferred to an alternative educational program, there is no downside: Those students are not counted as dropouts.

“No school really wants to have these children, who bring their test scores down, who bring their attendance rates down,” said Debra Duardo, pupil services coordinator for one of LAUSD’s local districts. She didn’t deny that some schools fudge the way dropouts are reported to lower their rate; it happens, she said, “more often than what I think is appropriate or ethical.”

Although there is no direct evidence that anyone at Birmingham has intentionally falsified records to lower the dropout rate, The Times found that the school erroneously reported that some students had transferred to other schools, allowing Birmingham to classify them as transfers, not dropouts.

Devora Arauz and Marco Galen were listed as having transferred to Independence High School, a continuation school adjacent to Birmingham, but Principal Cynthia Gladstone said neither showed up. Marcos Gonzalez was reported to have checked out of Birmingham en route to Dorsey High in the Crenshaw district, but Dorsey has no record of him.

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Economist Enrico Moretti of UC Berkeley estimated that if high school graduation rates were just 1% higher, there would be 100,000 fewer crimes in the United States annually, including 400 fewer murders, and that the savings would be $1.4 billion a year.

In an economy that increasingly relies on educated workers, “those who are not properly educated are going to fall by the wayside,” said Michael Rebell, director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College.

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Graduates

Here’s what happened to the 1,087 freshmen who entered Birmingham High in the fall of 2001:

Graduated: 582

From: Birmingham: 425*

Other traditional schools: 110

Nontraditional schools**: 47

Did not graduate: 224

Status unknown: 281

* In addition to these students, the graduating class included students who transferred to Birmingham

** Includes a variety of alternative programs, such as vocational schools, continuation schools and independent study programs that provide more personal instruction

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Each morning, when Gabriela Ocampo looked up at the chalkboard in her ninth-grade algebra class, her spirits sank.

There she saw a mysterious language of polynomials and slope intercepts that looked about as familiar as hieroglyphics.

She knew she would face another day of confusion, another day of pretending to follow along. She could hardly do long division, let alone solve for x.

“I felt like, ‘Oh, my God, what am I going to do?’ “ she recalled.

Gabriela failed that first semester of freshman algebra. She failed again and again—six times in six semesters. And because students in Los Angeles Unified schools must pass algebra to graduate, her hopes for a diploma grew dimmer with each F.

Midway through 12th grade, Gabriela gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School.

Her story might be just a footnote to the Class of 2005 except that hundreds of her classmates, along with thousands of others across the district, also failed algebra.

Of all the obstacles to graduation, algebra was the most daunting.

The course that traditionally distinguished the college-bound from others has denied vast numbers of students a high school diploma.

“It triggers dropouts more than any single subject,” said Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer. “I think it is a cumulative failure of our ability to teach math adequately in the public school system.”

When the Los Angeles Board of Education approved tougher graduation requirements that went into effect in 2003, the intention was to give kids a better education and groom more graduates for college and high-level jobs. For the first time, students had to pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry or an equivalent class to earn diplomas.

The policy was born of a worthy goal but has proved disastrous for students unprepared to meet the new demands.

In the fall of 2004, 48,000 ninth-graders took beginning algebra; 44% flunked, nearly twice the failure rate as in English. Seventeen percent finished with Ds.

In all, the district that semester handed out Ds and Fs to 29,000 beginning algebra students—enough to fill eight high schools the size of Birmingham.

Among those who repeated the class in the spring, nearly three-quarters flunked again.

The school district could have seen this coming if officials had looked at the huge numbers of high school students failing basic math.

Lawmakers in Sacramento didn’t ask questions either. After Los Angeles Unified changed its policy, legislators turned algebra into a statewide graduation requirement, effective in 2004.

Now the Los Angeles school board has raised the bar again. By the time today’s second-graders graduate from high school in 2016, most will have to meet the University of California’s entry requirements, which will mean passing a third year of advanced math, such as algebra II, and four years of English.

Former board President Jose Huizar introduced this latest round of requirements, which the board approved in a 6-1 vote last June.

Huizar said he was motivated by personal experience: He was a marginal student growing up in Boyle Heights but excelled in high school once a counselor placed him in a demanding curriculum that propelled him to college and a law degree.

“I think there are thousands of kids like me, but we’re losing them because we don’t give them that opportunity,” said Huizar, who left the school board after he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council last fall. “Yes, there will be dropouts. But I’m looking at the glass half full.”

Discouragement, Frustration

Birmingham High in Van Nuys, where Gabriela Ocampo struggled to grasp algebra, has a failure rate that’s about average for the district. Nearly half the ninth-grade class flunked beginning algebra last year.

In the spring semester alone, more freshmen failed than passed. The tally: 367 Fs and 355 passes, nearly one-third of them Ds.

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Her teacher, George Seidel, devoted a class this fall to reviewing equations with a single variable, such as x – 1 = 36. It’s the type of lesson students were supposed to have mastered in fourth grade.

Only seven of 39 students brought their textbooks. Several had no paper or pencils. One sat for the entire period with his backpack on his shoulders, tapping his desk with a finger.

Another doodled an eagle in red ink in his notebook. Others gossiped as Seidel, a second-year teacher, jotted problems on the front board.

“Settle down,” Seidel told the fifth-period students a few minutes after the bell rang. “It doesn’t work if you guys are trying to talk while I’m trying to talk.”

Seidel once brokered multimillion-dollar business deals but left a 25-year law career, hoping to find a more fulfilling job and satisfy an old desire to teach. Nothing, however, prepared him for period five.

“I got through a year of Vietnam,” he said, “so I tell myself every day I can get through 53 minutes of fifth period . . . I don’t know if I am making a difference with a single kid.”

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Most Los Angeles ninth-graders find algebra difficult. A sample question from the algebra standards test:

A 120-foot-long rope is cut into 3 pieces. The first piece of rope is twice as long as the second piece of rope. The third piece of rope is three times as long as the second piece of rope. What is the length of the longest piece of rope?

A) 20 feet

B) 40 feet

C) 60 feet

D) 80 feet

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Correct answer: C

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