“Dropout Factories”

From most media coverage over the past few years, we like to think of our high schools as incubators for success.  We throw around terms like rigor and relevance.  We opine that every child should go onto to college.  We push efforts to add additional AP or IB or dual enrollment programs to our schools.  And then, researchers such as those at Johns Hopkins throw a big wake-up call at our feet, reminding us of how far we still need to go.

If you missed it, Nancy Zuckerbrod at AP has the story.  http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2007/10/30/1_in_10_schools_are_dropout_factories?mode=PF  The summary: one in 10 high schools in the United States post a graduation rate of 60 percent or less.  That’s 17 percent of all of the high schools in the United States.

For years, these school districts have underestimated the problem.  The folks at Manhattan Institute would tell us an urban school district’s graduation rate was 55 percent.  The district would self-report 87 percent.  And we’d believe the latter.  We all want to believe statistics, and given the choice want to believe those that make us feel better about ourselves.  And there is no feel-good message in half of our students failing to earn a high school diploma.

We’d like to believe this is a problem in our urban areas.  But it isn’t limited to those communities.  These factories are just as likely in rural communities.  Why?  It’s purely economics.  We’re far more likely to find these schools in poor communities.  Dropout factories may be colorblind, but they know per-capita income.  According to the Johns Hopkins researchers, Florida and South Carolina have the greatest percentage of these schools.

Those communities providing refuge to such schools have been all abuzz about their dropout factories over the past few days.  We’re quick to defend, to refute, and to deny.  Such response is natural in crisis communications, and losing nearly half your students before graduation is indeed a crisis.  But if there were ever a time calling out for vision and for strategy, it has to be now.

In her piece, Zuckerbrod points to a number of legislative proposals to help fix the problem.  A common graduation rate formula is essential, as is stronger data collection and effective disaggregation of that data.  Then what?

We need to ask WHY these students are dropping out.  Despite popular opinion, few students leave high school because it is too hard.  To the contrary, many will leave because it is too boring or irrelevant.  

Are they leaving to go to work?  If so, what “good” job is out there for a 16-year-old high school dropout?  Some say they are dropping out because of NCLB or testing.  But I’d opine that most high school students don’t even know what NCLB is.

If we can gather data on why students leave school, we can craft the messages to get them to stay in school.  Even without the data, we know that the message must be personalized, must be relevant, and must just be common sense.  What does Eduflack mean?

* We need to start early.  Focusing on high schools and careers in ninth or 10th grade is just too late.  We need to get our kids on the right paths in middle school, get them thinking about the future, and show them the opportunities that really exist.  Middle school is the time to dream … and to plan.
* We need to better link high school to career.  Why take Algebra II?  If you want to design video games or work in a hospital, you need it.  High school courses are relevant.
* We need to take an interest.  In talking with today’s high school students about dropping out, most are staying in school because their teachers know them and take an interest in their lives.  We get rid of the factory mentality when we treat students as individuals.
* Every child has opportunity.  Education is the great equalizer.  With it, any student — regardless of socioeconomic level — can succeed.  But they need that high school diploma (and likely college degree) to do so.
* We cannot accept mediocrity.  We should be appalled by with the dropout rates reported by Manhattan Institute and others.  We simply cannot afford to lose a third of our students before the end of high school (and then another sizable group between high school and college completion).

I know, I know, I’m up on my high horse again.  But sometimes, we just have to ride that stag.  Dropout factories are simply unacceptable.  Dropping out of high school is never a viable choice.  If we want to build a new, strong economy based on high skill jobs, these are just the sort of factories that need a visit from the wrecking ball.  We need schools that prepare us for the rigors, challenges and opportunities of the future, not those that keep us from participating in that future.

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