While academics and bureaucrats fiddle, dropout rate soars

The high school dropout rate in the U.S. is soaring.  The Obama administration has budgeted  $50 million to dropout prevention program, but solving this problem will require a lot more money and a dramatic change in mindset and attitude.

The alarming scope of the dropout crisis was highlighted again this week in a study released by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston and the Alternative Schools Network of Chicago, a nonprofit known for its work in educating dropouts. Their study, finds that 16 percent of people between the ages of 16 and 24 have dropped out.

The problem is especially pronounced among men, who make up more than 60 percent of those who leave school nationally. The dropout problem hits minorities really hard. According to the study, for example, nearly 1 in 5 African-Americans and nearly 3 in 10 Hispanics ages 16 to 24 were dropouts in 2007.

The 16 percent number, while shocking, does not come close to the travesty and tragedy revealed when one considers the several independent studies that exposes the dropout rate at 30 percent and even higher. Among the most notable, Education Department at Johns Hopkins released a landmark report in 2007 that brought to our attention that over 2,000 high school “dropout factories.”  They coined the phrase “dropout factory,” to describe a high school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year. That description fits more than one in 10 high schools across America.  

Another study led by education advocate and former Secretary of State Colin Powell found that only 52 percent of public high school students in U.S. fifty largest cities graduate after four years, while the national average is 70 percent. The report finds that, overall, 17 of the public school systems in 50 major cities have graduation rates of 50 percent or lower, and the average graduation rate of all 50 systems is 58 percent.

Detroit, by many calculations the poorest US city, graduates less than 25 percent (24.9 percent) of its public high school students. Indianapolis Public Schools graduate 30.5 percent of their students, and the figures for the Cleveland Municipal City School District and the Baltimore City Public School System are 34.1 percent and 34.6 percent respectively.

You might now be thinking that the most recent 16 percent statistic points to a dramatic improvement in our educational system.  But not so fast.

Why the discrepancy from study to study? What is the true dropout rate?

The answer is not as clear as one might want.  Controversy seems to be raging on the definition of a dropout.  How ironic that the academics and bureaucrats fiddle with the characteristics of a dropout that Rome burns.  The researchers and institutions behind these studies can’t agree on what it means to graduate from high school. In addition, there are a number of ways the student dropout rate can be calculated.

For instance, high school completion rates count both those students who receive regular diplomas and those who complete high school by means of an equivalency test, such as the GED. High school graduation rates includes only those students who receive a traditional high school diploma.

But who cares?  Whether it’s 30 percent of 16 to 24 year old who didn’t finish 12th grade or the 16 percent who didn’t even pick up an equivalency degree, the U.S. is falling behind and now ranks 10th among countries worldwide in high school completion.  We need to stop fiddling around and do something.

More reading: The Dumbest Generation?


Ira S Wolfe