First Person

Opinion: What's with Colo.'s 12th-grade dropout rate?

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

It is heartbreaking when any student drops out of high school. It is especially heartbreaking when that student makes it all the way to 12th grade only to leave months before his classmates don their caps and gowns.

That’s why a certain statistic caught my eye as I read the 2011 Education Week “Quality Counts” report. The report examined (among other things) the students who were scheduled to graduate with the class of 2008 but dropped out instead.

Nationwide, 25 percent of the dropouts from the class of 2008 left school senior year.

Yet in Colorado, 43.4 percent of 2008 dropouts left senior year.

That’s a big difference.

One obvious reason for the high percentage of 12th grade dropouts is that in 2007, Colorado raised the legal dropout age from 16 to 17. It is difficult, however, to determine whether the 12th-grade drop-out rate was higher before this occurred.  That’s because the state, in recent years, has made import changes to dropout rate calculations.[i]

These changes also potentially affected the 2008 dropout rate calculations included in the 2011 edition of “Quality Counts.” But members of the class of 2010 did not start high school until 2006-07—which was after all of the data collection changes had occurred.  So I went to the Colorado Department of Education website to check out what percentage of the class of 2010 dropped out as seniors.

The 12th –grade dropout rate for the class of 2010 was very similar to the 12th grade dropout rate for the class of 2008 . Of the 15,256 students who dropped out of the class of 2010, 37% were seniors as compared to 41% in 2008.

Dropouts from the class of 2010, by grade, state of Colorado

Grade level Year Number of dropouts Percent of total dropouts, class of 2010
9 2006-07 3,466 23%
10 2007-08 2,724 18%
11 2008-09 3,475 23%
12 2009-10 5,591 37%


The percent of 12th grade dropouts varied considerably among metro-area districts.  Interestingly, percent of Denver’s 12th grade dropouts was much lower than the state average. In Denver, members of the class of 2010 were most likely to drop out in ninth grade (34 percent). 

Number and percent of 12th grade dropouts, class of 2010, by school district

District Number of 12th grade dropouts from the class of 2010 Percent of 12th grade dropouts from the class of 2010
Boulder Valley 122 50%
Jefferson County 484 49%
Aurora 694 38%
STATE TOTAL 5,591 37%
Adams 12 410 35%
Cherry Creek 183 35%
Douglas County 60 28%
Denver 696 26%


Certainly, these types of calculations are imperfect because they do not account for students who take more than one year to complete a grade. But this is presumably true in every state and every district. Why would rates vary among districts? Why would Colorado have a much higher percentage of 12th –grade dropouts than other states even as our overall dropout rate appears to be declining? I say “appears” because of the data collection changes.

It is possible that this is nothing but a big data snafu. It is also possible that Colorado students really are waiting longer to leave school than students in many other states. Perhaps students are staying in school longer because the dropout age was raised. If so, that is a step in the right direction. But I doubt the goal of the law was merely to encourage students to postpone dropping out. Somehow I think lawmakers hoped more kids would make it all the way to graduation. If this is to occur, then we, as a state, may need to refocus dropout prevention resources so that older students get more assistance and attention. This is especially crucial because, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, Colorado’s overall dropout rate in grades 9-12 was 6.4% in 2008, the most recent year for which national data is available.[ii]That is well above the US average of 4.1%. Only Alaska, Arizona and Louisiana had higher rates.


  1. [i] Until 2002, the state had a category called “ungraded.”  In the 1990s, thousands of students fell into this category. The annual dropout rate for this category hovered around 30%. The existence of this category obviously makes it difficult to compare, say, the number of 12th graders who dropped out of the class of 2008 with the number of 12th graders who dropped out of the class of 1998 because there is no way of knowing where these ungraded students fit into the picture.
  2. In 2003-04, the state started using individual student identifiers to collect dropout data. According to the Department of Education, this increased accuracy, resulting in a one-time increase in the dropout rate. The state also discovered a computer error that was artificially deflating the dropout rate in certain districts.
  3. In 2005, the state started counting missing students as dropouts if districts could not document that they had transferred to another school or to home schooling. According to the Department of Education, this also caused a one-time increase in the dropout rate.


[ii] The Colorado Department of Education’s estimate for that year is lower (3.8%)

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.