Ferris Bueller's Off Day

IT’S GOOD POLITICS THESE DAYS to decry the high school dropout problem. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been vocal on the subject for two years as part of his campaign to run the Los Angeles Unified School District, but his attempts at control have been rebuffed. Although he backed successful candidates for the five-member elected school board, we never did hear what his solutions to the high dropout rate might be.

Now it’s the turn of the state Senate in Sacramento to chime in. In reaction to California’s significant numbers of school dropouts — about 150,000 a year, including 35,000 who abandon school annually in Los Angeles — state Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has introduced new laws that would cajole, reward and scare California’s public schools into actions intended to increase graduation rates.

As a veteran high school teacher in L.A. who has been through many attempted cures of the public schools, I usually approach such ideas cautiously. To help assess Steinberg’s ideas, I decided to go to an often-neglected source: students.

As it happens, I recently taught two classes of ninth-grade English in summer session at an LAUSD high school in the west San Fernando Valley, and my students, primarily black and Latino, with a sprinkling of Iranian and other white students, were exactly the at-risk kids Steinberg’s bills target. Every one of them failed ninth-grade English the first time. A few have enviable excuses (i.e., trips abroad with affluent parents). Those few will pass summer session with no trouble.

But most of these students failed their regular courses because they either did not try to pass, or tried to pass but couldn’t. When their midterm report cards were a week away, I was already looking at failing about a third of them (roughly the dropout rate of Los Angeles Unified, by some estimates).

What better students to assess Senator Steinberg’s bills?

To augment the ninth-grade views, I also visited a colleague’s class down the hall and spoke with 11th- and 12th-graders who were retaking 10th-grade world history, which they all failed. In each classroom, I wrote summaries of the proposed bills on the board, and we discussed each one.

The students’ comments were illuminating.

We began with Senate Bill 219, which would add dropout data to a school’s all-important Academic Performance Index (API), the annual report card for every school in California. The API can be punitive in that the results for each school are made public. But in addition, the API is folded into an annual progress report required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under this tough federal law, in extreme cases of failure year after year, schools can be “reconstituted” — a drastic process in which some or all faculty and administrators are asked to “reapply” for their jobs. All can be fired or transferred.

About 5 percent of California’s schools have undergone “reconstitution,” including a few in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. If SB 219 became law, not just test scores but also dropout rates would be factored into the API scores used to decide if a school gets “reconstituted.” Some schools’ API scores could tank if dropout rates were included.

My ninth-grade students were almost unanimous that Senate Bill 219 would not lower the dropout rate. “It’s not the teachers’ or principal’s fault if students don’t graduate. If we’re lazy and don’t do the work, it’s our fault,” said Samantha, and her sentiment was repeated dozens of times.

A few students wondered how, in the extreme case of reconstitution, anyone would know that the teachers who replaced the transferred teachers would be any better. And what about the schools that received the transferred teachers? Wouldn’t it harm those schools to absorb teachers who, in theory, are substandard and have failed to improve?

Unlike the ninth-graders, the older kids were not unanimously opposed to SB 219. Five, out of about 60, thought it would be a good thing to hold teachers accountable by adding dropout rates to measure whether a school should be reconstituted. These five blamed uncaring, ignorant and mean-spirited teachers for some dropout cases. Tenth-grader Lawrence opined, “Some teachers want us to drop out — it’s less work for them.” Most of these older students heartily agreed that bad teachers exist. But only a few thought such teachers were a major factor in the dropout rate. This view was summed up by Angelica, who said, “We all know there’s some bad teachers, but kids just use them as an excuse to stop working.”

Next we turned to SB 405, which would give two gifts to schools with high dropout rates. First, such schools would be awarded more college-oriented Advanced Placement and honors classes, in accordance with the theory that students are bored and drop out because they are not challenged.

This idea received more scorn and derision than any other, from both the 9th-graders and the older kids.

Student after student called it a “stupid” idea, because why would you put someone who was “not intelligent enough,” as characterized by Brian, who was “lazy,” per Juan, or who was “already having trouble with regular classes” (Sean) into a “really difficult class where you had to work really hard?” — summed up by Yolanda.

In fact, regular high school classes are quite difficult for many students. As Matthew put it, “If there’s a high dropout rate, why would you give kids harder classes? They don’t drop out because they’re bored; they drop out because they think they can’t do well.”

One 11th-grader, Tony, asked, “Is this an idea any adult would believe for himself? Does any adult want his job to be harder, to keep him from quitting?”

It would be fair to say the kids were incredulous that any adult would think adding more-demanding classes could lower dropout rates. That incredulity increased when I told them that the idea is accepted as gospel by most education officials and politicians — not just in California, but nationally.

The other provision of SB 405 would support “career tech” classes. I put this in terms of classes that could lead to a job. For the first time, my students showed substantial approval for Steinberg’s ideas.

There was near unanimity that classes that trained students for specific jobs could be strong motivators to graduate (I say “near” because one student, Kenneth, speculated that “teaching kids job skills would not help, because once the students learn the job, they can drop out and still get a good job”). One enthusiast, Abraham, shouted, “If they offered auto shop, I’d come to school every day!”

Of course, teaching job skills raises the question of whether the Los Angeles economy can come up with another 35,000 jobs each year for all the students who currently drop out, and whether high school–taught vocational skills are really enough to land a decent job.

Finally, we considered SB 406, which would put limitations on the hours a student can work at a paying job, under the assumption that many kids drop out because their jobs are demanding. Under this law, a student with a grade average lower than C+ whose attendance had dropped to less than 90 percent would be limited to 20 hours of work per week. Students with a C average or lower whose attendance had dropped to below 80 percent could not work at all.

Some students were perplexed by this bill. While they agreed that afterschool jobs can make it very difficult to study, they pointed out that kids often need money to support themselves, and sometimes their families, so this law might actually make them drop out.

But other students pointed out that by requiring a C+ average, high schools would in fact be teaching job skills, since the ­discipline and focus needed to pass a class is also prized in the workplace. One student, Bianca, argued that “a C+ average requirement would save businesses the trouble of getting rid of irresponsible students.” Another student, Frank, asked, “If athletes need a C average to be on a team, why shouldn’t someone with a job?”

My purpose here is not to praise or scorn Senator Steinberg’s bills using student opinion, but rather to point out that there is such a thing as student opinion. And since it’s these very summer-school students who are making the decisions about completing high school or dropping out, we can assume they know something about their own ­motivations.

Doug Lasken teaches high school English and debate, and is a testing consultant to the State Board of Education. Reach him at