Paul Vallas rips Catalyst, dropout stories

Print More

June 30, 1999

Your June issue of Catalyst has deliberately ignored, distorted and misused facts and statistics to create a false picture of the dropout problem in the Chicago Public Schools.

Through selective use of data, you claim that the high school dropout rate is “climbing” when you know perfectly well it has actually been declining in our general high schools. You accuse the School Board of adopting policies that direct schools to push out students, while overlooking the many policies and programs put in place since 1996 to help students stay in school. Your narrative even contradicts information clearly displayed in your own chart. You are completely silent about completely unreliable dropout data of the past and our aggressive steps to establish accurate, reliable, honest information that presents a true picture of the problem. You have even ignored the conclusions of an independent and highly respected researcher, Dr. Fred Hess from Northwestern University, on the shortcomings of the pre-1995 reform efforts.

What particularly concerns us is that your reporter was given all this information – and more – along with many hours of discussion with me and staff members. She knew and understood the data, but chose instead to pen an unwarranted and false attack.

Catalyst’s reputation for quality journalism has continually been brought into question because of its apparent editorial bias against the current administration. For example, in past issues you attacked the testing program, arguing – without evidence – that scores went up only because of the retained students. When the Consortium on Chicago School Research disproved that argument, you then accused us of making decisions solely on the basis of a test. In neither article did you point out that standardized tests are used in conjunction with other information in making retention decisions. Nor did you point out that students who don’t meet the minimum score for promotion in May can be retested – on the recommendation of the Region Education Officer in June. If necessary, the student will be tested once more, in August, before a decision is made to retain. Three tests, using different forms each time, plus provision for a waiver: this is not using a single test.

I cannot begin to correct all the errors and falsehoods in your five articles and one editorial on dropouts, but I am compelled to address the most blatant.

Item 1: the dropout rate. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) annually reports the single-year dropout rate for every school district in the state, as part of ISBE’s State Report Card. That figure includes all regular high schools but excludes special schools such as schools for pregnant girls, transitional schools and alternative schools for dropouts. In other words, the data describes the kinds of schools discussed in your articles. That figure, which was 17.0 percent in 1993-94, dropped to 16.2 percent in 1996-97 and to 15.8 percent in 1997-98.

The figures you chose to use included the high schools with special student populations, which historically have high dropout rates. The Chicago Public Schools has never had access to these figures from ISBE, which are – according to former State Superintendent Joseph Spagnolo – unreliable since they possibly double count students. Therefore, we rely on the numbers published by ISBE for Chicago schools and for all other schools in the state. To use any other numbers would open this administration up to charges of manipulating data.

Your deliberate use of the wrong data created a false picture. The truth is that dropout rate in the regular high schools is declining.

Item 2: replacing facts with anecdotes. You chose to highlight comments from a few individuals at a few schools, such as Orr, rather than present the data to show dropouts are declining. If you had cared to look at many schools, you would know that the few examples you showed are the exception, not the rule.

Item 3: dismissing positive data with insinuation. In one of the rare instances where you cite positive information – that the number of students absent 70 or more days has been cut in half- you insinuate that this is due to schools dropping students for excessive absences, in order to improve test scores, ignoring the many actions schools have taken to improve attendance.

Item 4: mixing up unrelated information. You note that the Board adopted a policy for dropping from membership any student with 40 unexcused absences in a year, and then refer to a later policy of 20 or more unexcused absences. The latter figure comes from the policy on promotion, but you treat it as a new policy on membership. This confuses and misleads the reader, suggesting that the Board and the administration don’t know what they’re doing.

Item 5: exaggerating information. Your story on 15-year-old dropouts implies that the school system is allowing schools to push out students under age 16 in violation of State law. Again, you have been highly selective in your data. Your selection of seven schools includes six that are or were on academic probation, hardly a representative sample. Even with this bias, there were only 287 such students found in these schools, over a four-year period. The schools you selected are scarcely representative of our high schools, but even at these schools, it’s not a big problem. You’re talking about only eight students per school per year, a number which has not increased in four years. Obviously, there has been no increased effort to push out low-performing 9th graders in order to boost scores. However, even with this consistently small number of dropouts, our 9th grade reading scores have increased by nearly 40 percent over the same four years. This is a much higher percentage increase than our 11th graders have shown in the same time period.

Naturally, we do not want to see 15-year-olds drop out of school. (We don’t want to see any student drop out.) But in a large school system, there will always be a small number who do leave, despite our best efforts to keep them.

Item 6: misquoting. Robert Saddler insists that the quote you attribute to him does not at all reflect his views and is quoted out of context. One quote from me (“Everybody lies about their dropout rates”) became a nice lead for one story, but omits the information that I was referring to schools before 1996.

Item 7: omitting important information. Besides inflating the current dropout rate, you failed to tell your readers about the many efforts we have been making to get more accurate information. As you note, Fred Hess has stated that high schools in the 1980’s regularly falsified dropout data by maintaining ghost enrollments or coding dropouts as transfers. These practices had the effect of falsely reducing the true dropout rate. Thus, our current dropout rate, which is lower than the old published figures, is probably much lower than the actual rates in past years. You thereby manage to further diminish our accomplishments, instead pumping up your fictional crisis.

Also, even though your reporter was given Fred Hess’ summary of major findings to date on the high school redesign, none of that information appeared in the articles. Particularly pertinent to the discussion of dropouts and of social vs. performance promotion is his finding that over-age students starting high school under social promotion was 56 to 62 percent whereas older students entering our transition centers had a dropout rate of just 13 percent. This information is certainly important for your readers, but was left out.

You also gave no mention to the audit findings on attendance that we shared with you, perhaps because it also showed an improving situation. For instance, King High School in 1994-95 had 26 percent of its students absent 70 or more days; by 1997-98, that number had declined to 13 percent and as of March 1999, it was only 4 percent for this year.

Item 8: ignoring your own chart. In your discussion of the four-year dropout rates, you claim that ours has soared to just over 40 percent, ignoring your chart that shows this figure to be well below 1991’s 50 percent rate. In fact, the data show that the four-year dropout rate has consistently gone down since 1991, contrary to the tenor of your article. Granted that 40 percent is much higher than we would like, nonetheless credit should be given for the progress made so far.

Item 9: burying important information. We shared with your reporter a great deal of information on the comprehensive attendance audits we are conducting in every high school and even had your reporter participate in one audit. This crucial information was buried as a small sidebar story, not related to the story on dropout rates. The audits strongly suggested that, in the years prior to 1996, many schools were carrying anywhere from 10 percent or more of their students who were in effect not there. Your readers should know that our dropout rate has declined, despite our auditing to obtain strict reporting of dropouts, and despite our more demanding high school curriculum and stringent promotion policy. The conclusion that performance promotion is driving students out of school is not supported by the facts.

Item 10: turning a blind eye to our dropout reduction initiatives. We have started a comprehensive set of programs to keep students in school, including the Cradle to Classroom for teen mothers, the new night school program, the student advisory to give every student weekly counseling and support, the small school programs, the alternative centers for dropouts, International Baccalaureate programs, Career Academies, math and science specialty schools, transition centers, more small schools, block scheduling and the many other new programs designed to offer a diverse range of programs for all interests.

I could continue to itemize the errors, but you see my point. Catalyst has become a defender of the previous reform while ignoring the improvements that have taken place over the past four years. One would think that a publication calling itself the “voices of Chicago school reform” would welcome news about high school test scores that have risen for three years in a row, math scores that have doubled and are approach the national norm. Or stories about the achievement of Roosevelt students in the national Robotics competition or Curie in the Academic Decathlon. Instead, this last issue of Catalyst until September contains no mention at all of test results. It almost seems that Catalyst is morose over the improvements happening in the schools, as you keep trying to defend the discredited policies of the past, including the policy of social promotion.

The true voice of school reform should cry out in support of efforts that are actually helping students to learn more and better. After all, the point of school reform is not who makes the decisions or exercises the power, but helping students get a better education. That’s where Catalyst started and where it needs to be now. To help you get back on track I am enclosing some information to help you: 1) selected student characteristics for ten years, from the State Report Card; 2) summary test results for 1998-99; 3) summary of the audit findings; and 4) Dr. Hess’ preliminary summary of major findings.

Paul G. Vallas

Chief Executive Officer