Thursday, November 8, 2007

Dropping Out Of Sight

Due to my belief in the value of education and my concern that we are at a defining moment in American educational history, particularly for minority students I wanted to do a follow-up to my recent essay, “The Students Aren’t Failing, We Are”. Because the stakes and the cost of failure are so high, I want to continue to press this issue. The importance of this issue transcends race, gender, and economics, because the cost of failing to educate these children will be borne by all of us. It will be borne out in higher crime, higher social service costs, and higher taxes. It will also over time cost us billions of dollars in loss productivity and could result in catastrophic costs for rebuilding cities torched by rioters and looters. The thing about America is that ignoring issues and problems has always been amenable to confrontation and action until it explodes into violence and rage. Then the media creates these nice little banners and theme music wondering what went wrong and why are these people so angry.

One of the topics that is currently not being discussed within the “No Child Left Behind” debate is the drop-outs and what can we do about it. We discuss test scores and assessments for schools, teachers, and administrators, but nothing about the graduation rates. It is incumbent on the black community to come to grips with this epidemic, because the fall-out will affect us first and the hardest. One of the first casualties of means testing and assessments is the failing student and despite current popular belief the main reason students drop out is because they are failing. No one wants to continue in a circumstance that they feel they are failing in with no chance of turning it around, especially if there is little or no support to complete the task anyway.

We know that there are warning signs that indicate students are at risk for dropping out, but due to the fact that so many of our schools in the inner-city are so crowded and place so much emphasis on assessments they are often times ignored and allowed to slip through the cracks. Throw in the fact that many failing students are also troubled students and there is even less effort made to prevent their departure. Unfortunately, because of the over-crowding of our inner-city schools and the emphasis on school assessment performance it seems like there is a built in percentage of students who will be sacrificed for the greater good or the larger number of students. The scores of drop-outs do not affect the overall score for the school’s certification, so if failing students drop-out the test scores of the remaining students may actually improve on paper. If this were a small percentage of students, there could be an argument for justification or evidence of its effectiveness. In the case of too many of our schools the numbers are reversed, there are more students dropping out than graduating.

The research report, released yesterday by the Philadelphia Youth Network, has significant implications for how cities can effectively use their resources to encourage more students to stay in school. According to Neild and Balfanz:

* Most future dropouts can be identified before or early in the first year of high school. For example, eighth- graders who miss five weeks of school or fail math or English have at least a 75 percent chance of dropping out of high school. And in the Philadelphia district, as with most districts with a dropout challenge, many future dropouts attend a subset of high schools that often are overwhelmed by the sheer number of students in need of intensive intervention.

* Most dropouts leave school because they are not attending regularly and are failing courses — a finding that counters the common interpretation of the landmark Silent Epidemic report that suggested that most students drop out because they are bored and not challenged.

* Most dropouts are not involved with social service agencies, but those who are have extremely high dropout rates. For high school students who have been abused and neglected, are in foster care or receive an out-of-home placement in the juvenile justice system, the probability of dropping out is 75 percent or higher. Likewise, having a child before or during high school dramatically increased the chances that female students would drop out. This finding comes from the first analysis of individual school and social service records, and suggests that current social service/juvenile justice supports are not strong enough to enable adolescents in their charge to graduate.[1]

These findings are from a report done by John Hopkins University and provide us with clear signs of impending disaster. Of course recognizing a problem is only half of the solution, the next question is are we willing to intervene in these circumstances to avoid their predicted outcome? Here, we are able to see the future and if we want to we can change the future for these kids. It is not like we don’t already know what the life of a high school drop-out will be like.

The nation’s economy and competitive standing also suffers when there are high dropout rates. Among developed countries, the United States ranks seventeenth in high school graduation rates and fourteenth in college graduation rates (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2006). Dropouts represent a tremendous waste of human potential and productivity, and reduce the nation’s ability to compete in an increasingly global economy.

High school graduates, on the other hand, provide both economic and social benefits to society. In addition to earning higher wages, which results in attendant benefits to local, state, and national economic conditions, high school graduates live longer (Muennig, 2005), are less likely to be teen parents (Haveman et al., 2001), and are more likely to raise healthier, better-educated children. In fact, children of parents who graduate from high school are themselves far more likely to graduate from high school than are children of parents without a high school degree (Wolfe & Haveman, 2002). High school graduates are also less likely to commit crimes (Raphael, 2004), rely on government health care (Muennig, 2005), or use other public services such as food stamps or housing assistance (Garfinkel et al., 2005). Additionally, high school graduates engage in civic activity, including voting and volunteering in their communities, at higher levels (Junn, 2005).

Intervention is the key. We must realize that drop-outs drop out of more than school; many of them drop out of society as productive members as well. As with most problems we face as a nation the upfront costs will always be less than the backend cost of reducing our drop-out rates. The truth is these drop-outs do not drop out of sight, they come back and create an enormous strain on society.


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