For the past six years, the Notebook has annually taken stock of the city's dropout problem. During that time, the School District's graduation rate, while still low, has crept upward. Since 2002, the positive trend is striking – double-digit gains in on-time graduation rates for most groups, including African American and Latino males, who are least likely to earn a diploma.
But progress, though steady, has been painfully slow. The four-year graduation rate for Black males is only 51 percent; for Latino males, it is a mere 42 percent. At this pace, it could take two decades for the city to reach Mayor Nutter's goal of getting overall graduation rates to 80 percent.
This year, our look at the dropout problem is colored by a looming budget crisis. With massive cutbacks on the way, how do we ensure that young people on the margins, who have already dropped out or are feeling pushed out of their schools, are not the first victims? How do we preserve the supports that have made a difference for students who confront the most difficult circumstances?
We heard from many students about the importance of programs that gave them a second or third chance to earn their diplomas. We learned about successes in building strong school teams to share responsibility for combating truancy. We found that some alternative, accelerated high schools approach District standards for moving students toward graduation, while others fall well short.
But we also ran into difficulty gaining access to detailed information or analysis about what is going well and what isn't. With all the talk about dropout prevention being the centerpiece of the mayor's agenda, we were troubled by how hard it still is to get meaningful data from the District about dropout and graduation rates. It took repeated requests to obtain numbers for this edition.
The problem is not with the District's data systems – they are up-to-date. Officials obsessively analyze the data about predictive tests to help schools boost their PSSA scores. Our concern is whether the same effort is made to answer questions like which Imagine 2014 initiatives contribute to improved graduation rates. And the guarded approach to public release of data thwarts most outside efforts at informed conversation about these issues.
Flying blind into a budget storm puts everyone on board at risk. Understanding what is behind the gain in graduation rates is crucial so the District can make smart spending decisions and provide evidence of success to its funders – not to mention improve kids' lives. The situation calls for some timely analysis of the outcomes of District interventions, sharing findings publicly, and inviting honest discussions about what programs and policies have made a difference.