Let’s Make Dropping Out Illegal!

By now, the numbers are ingrained on the souls of most education reformers.  Nearly a third of all ninth graders will not earn a high school diploma.  In our African-American and Hispanic communities, that number statistic rises to nearly 50 percent.  Imagine, a 50/50 chance of earning a high school diploma of you are a student of color.  The statistic is so staggering, there must be something we can do.

In today’s USA Today, we have the dueling editorials on a potential solutions — raising the drop-out age.  The line of thinking here is that if we raise the age a student must be in order to drop out of high school to 18, we can turn this crisis around.  Think of it.  Require, by law, every kid to stay in school until they are 18, and the drop-out rates will dramatically shrink.

Of course, 17 states already have such compulsory school attendance laws, with one more going online next summer.  Do we believe that those states — which include California, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas — are not struggling with dropouts?  Are grad rates not an issue in LAUSD or New Orleans or Cleveland or Houston?  Of course not.  Those cities are facing the realities of drop-out factories, just like most major urban centers, even if drop-outs need to be 18 to officially leave school.

If we know anything about teenagers, it should be that mandates don’t change behavior.  A 17-year requirement doesn’t keep the average 10th grader from seeing an R-rated movie.  A 21-year age requirement doesn’t keep seniors from taking a sip of beer or a slug of Boone’s Farm.  We have underage driving. We have illegal drug use.  Kids will go after what they want, regardless of the prohibitions or the consequences.  The challenge — and the opportunity — is to convince them to make a good decision.  We don’t chain them to their high school desks, we need to demonstrate to them that they want to stay and they need to stay.

So how do we do that?  Last month, I made reference to some focus groups I did with students on the value and need for high school.  Robert Pondiscio and the folks over at the Core Knowledge Blog (http://www.coreknowledge.org/blog/) hoped they would soon learn a little more about Eduflack’s experiences.  So here goes.

Back in the fall, I spent weeks meeting with eight, ninth, and 10th graders from a state that is pretty representative of the United States.  Strong and not-so-strong urban centers, along with booming suburbs, and struggling rural areas.  A strong commitment to K-16 education, yet major industry leaving the cities and towns that have long depended on it.  Educators and business leaders committed to improvement, yet students not sure what opportunity would be available to them.

My goal was to learn what low-income students thought of their high school offerings and their opportunities for the future.  I didn’t spend my time in the suburbs or with the honors or college prep students.  I met with poor urban students, and I met with poor rural students.  Most came from families where college had never been an option.  And all came from homes with a very real fear that this generation may not be as successful as the generation before it.

I planned for the worst.  I expected students to justify, or even respect, dropping out.  How good union jobs could be found without a high school diploma or how gangs and other outside influences made school a lesser priority.  But what I heard during this experience gave me hope, and made it clear we can improve high school graduation rates simply by boosting relevance, interest, and access.

What did I hear?  In general:

* Students understand and appreciate the link between high school and “good” careers.
* For virtually all students, dropping out is not a productive option.  For many, they don’t even think you can get a fast food job today without that diploma.
* Students know relevant courses such as those found in STEM programs are key to obtaining meaningful employment after school.
* They are eager to pursue postsecondary opportunities while in high school.  They may not know anyone who has taken an AP or dual enrollment course, but they know it has value.
* Students want more career and technical education offerings.  They know these are relevant courses that link directly to future jobs.

And what more did Eduflack learn?  The greatest obstacle we face is awareness.  This isn’t about requiring kids to stay in school.  This is about opening opportunities and helping them see the choices and the pathways available to them.  Today’s high schools are not one-size-fits-all.  And that’s OK.  Today’s students want to know what’s available to them and what aligns with their aptitudes and their interests.  They want a consumer-based educational experience.

Parents still play a key role in this little dance, as does the business community.  Students expect their parents to push and guide them.  They may not always listen, but students know they need their parents with them as they head down those pathways.  With businesses, students just want to learn about the opportunities.  What is needed to become a physician assistant or a manager at the local manufacturing plant or a graphic designer.  Today’s students do have career aspirations, but most of them have never met someone who holds that job nor do they know what is needed to achieve such a position.  Now is the time for businesses to educate their future workforce.

I’ve done similar focus groups across the nation over the last decade, and the findings have been remarkably similar.  Students have a far better sense for their futures than we give them credit for.  They know it will be hard.  They know they’ll need help.  But they know there are multiple pathways available to them.  They just need their teachers and parents and priests and community leaders to see it to.

These kids aren’t dropping out of high school because it is too hard or because they are finally old enough that they can stop going to school and stay at home and watch TV all day.  They leave because they don’t see the relevance.  They don’t see how the classes they are taking crosswalk to their career or life goals.  They don’t believe postsecondary education may be possible for them.  They don’t believe they have the ability to gain access to those multiple pathways. 

Raising the drop-out age won’t change that.  If we want more students to stay in high school, earn their diplomas, and pursue postsecondary education, we need to inspire and motivate them.  We need to give them hope.  We need to demonstrate that high school is the first step toward a happy and successful life.  It needs to be relevant.  It needs to be interesting and engaging.  And it needs to lift up all students, not talk down to them with mandates and lowered expectations.
  

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