Graduation rates tell a simple story: You get what you pay for

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The new statewide graduation rates released yesterday by the Department of Education are understandably getting a great deal of attention. The four-year high school graduation rates have improved a bit, but are still at about 68 percent.

Experts are diving into the numbers on a district-by-district and school-by-school basis, trying to find patterns that can lead to more success across the state. But the numbers paint a very simple picture: If we want to improve K-12 education and increase graduation rates, we have to fund schools like they really are a priority.

For most of the past decade, funding for schools has been on a rapid decline. Even the Governor’s proposed budget for next school year, when adjusted for inflation, is less money than the crisis budget K-12 school districts are facing now; it will mean an even shorter school year and larger class sizes over the next two years.

Oregon currently has the third largest class size in the nation and over the past few years, we’ve seen high school class sizes increase by nearly 30 percent. It’s not unusual to have 60 kids or more in class in Oregon high schools. Wonder if that has anything to do with graduate rates?

(At the same time, the amount the state is giving away in tax breaks has grown by billions of dollars—28% just since 2009. That is money being drained away from our schools, senior healthcare, and public safety.)

school funding vs tax breaks (2013-15 update)

The solution for improving graduation rates isn’t rocket science. Students (and teachers) need smaller class sizes and more individual instruction. There needs to be direct engagement with parents. Schools need programs that keep students engaged, including arts education and career and technical training. And struggling students need  the additional support and attention they need to succeed.

All of those things require adequate funding.

This isn’t a theoretical conversation. There are at least two real-world examples from the latest report that illustrate what can be done with more money into classrooms:

Hillsboro’s Century High School posted one of the best graduation numbers in the state—85 percent for the class of 2012. How’d they do it?

Century leaders have spent years refining the formula they’ve developed to keep tabs on students who struggle and get them back on track.
    The Care Team pulls together counselors, teachers, social workers, parents and others to assist individual students who are on the verge of dropping out. An alternative education teacher helps catch kids who fall behind in credits. The English as a Second Language Department reviews students weekly and reassigns classroom aides to classes where kids are struggling the most.
    In addition, school leaders have combed research and statistics on a national level, searching for tidbits that help them spot red flags among students. A Chicago Public Schools study showed freshmen who earned five credits or less were more likely to drop out. Staff visited schools in Washington state to learn how to provide students extra support during the school day instead of making it optional after school, said Century Principal Ted Zehr.

These efforts require a real investment of funds. Century has also taken part in the federal Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, financed primarily by grants, that allows teachers, counselors, and administrators to provide individual attention to so-called “underachieving students.”

Portland’s Madison High School increased its grad rate by 7.5 points to 71 percent, a significant improvement in a short amount of time. Just two short years ago, Madison had one of the worst four-year graduation rates in the state. How’d they do it? Money.

Madison’s poor results and its high poverty rate netted it a $3.5 million, three-year federal turnaround grant in 2011. That enabled the school to hire instructional coaches and a social service coordinator and to pay teachers to work after school, on weekends and in the summer to plan curriculum, get more training and help struggling students, Callin said.
    The result has been better teaching techniques, closer teacher-student relationships, greater faculty collaboration and more social services for students and families — and all those help keep students in school and on track to a diploma, she said.

So while elected leaders are wringing their hands about how to improve Oregon’s K-12 schools, it’s important for us all to remember one thing: You get what you pay for.

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