With the baby-boom generation on the verge of retirement, sustaining the American workforce and economy depends on having a cadre of new young workers to replace them, says former Gov. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. But with jobs in the fastest-growing economic sectors now requiring at least a high-school diploma and, often, two years or more of post-high-school training, coming up with an adequately trained new workforce won't be easy, Wise says.
The annual graduation rate has risen from a little over 50 percent per year in the late 1960s to 73.9 percent in 2003. If it's to rise higher, however, the improvement must come among poor and minority students, mostly in urban schools, who are far less likely than others to earn diplomas.
For example, while about two-thirds of all students who enter ninth grade graduate four years later, on-time graduation rates for minority and low-income students, especially males, are much lower. In 2001, for example, only about 50 percent of African-American students and 51 percent of Latino students graduated on time, compared to 75 percent of white students and 77 percent of Asian and Pacific Islanders.
Students with family incomes in the lowest 20 percent dropped out of school at six times the average rate of wealthier students.
In about a sixth of American high schools, the freshman class routinely shrinks by 40 percent or more by the time students reach senior year. For the most part, those schools serve low-income and minority students. Nearly half of African-American students, 40 percent of Latino students and 11 percent of white students attend high schools where graduation is not the norm. A high school with a majority of students who are racial or ethnic minorities is five times more likely to promote only 50 percent or fewer freshmen to senior status within four years than a school with a white majority.
Meanwhile, the earning power of dropouts has been dropping for three decades. For example, the earnings of male dropouts fell by 35 percent between 1971 and 2002, measured in 2002 dollars. Three-quarters of state prison inmates and 59 percent of federal inmates are dropouts. In 2001, only 55 percent of young adult dropouts were employed. Even the death rate is 2.5 times higher for people without a high-school education than for people with 13 years or more of schooling.
But if the consequences are known, the cures may be harder to pinpoint.
Many educators say dropping out starts early. “Disengagement doesn't start in the ninth grade. It starts in fifth,” says James F. Lytle, a University of Pennsylvania professor and former superintendent of the Trenton, N.J., public schools. For on-track students in middle-class schools, “middle school has the most interesting, exciting stuff in class” — science experiments, readings about interesting people in history and studies “of how the world works” — he says.
But once students are judged to be reading behind grade level, as happens with many urban fifth-graders, middle schools turn to “dumbed-down remedial work” that's below students' real intellectual level and leaves them bored and dispirited, Lytle says. It doesn't have to be that way, he says. “But I wish that educational courseware was farther down the road” of providing ways to combine skills teaching with subject matter that is at students' actual age level. (continued below)
“Kids disengage early,” says Lalitha Vasudevan, an assistant professor at Columbia University's Teachers College who works in an education program for young African-American males who've been diverted from jail and are mostly dropouts. “Often, early on, they've had teachers say things to them that they interpret as, 'You don't really care that I'm here,' ” she says.
Dropping out “is not a decision that is made on a single morning,” says a report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In an extensive survey of dropouts, researchers found that “there are clear warning signs for at least one-to-three years” before students drop out, such as frequently missing school, skipping class, being held back a grade or frequently transferring among schools.
Some key factors cited by the dropouts in the Gates study: Schools don't respond actively when students skip class and don't provide an orderly and safe environment. “In middle school, you have to go to your next class or they are going to get you,” said a young male dropout from Philadelphia. “In high school, if you don't go to class, there isn't anybody who is going to get you. You just do your own thing.”
Lytle says cities could also establish post-dropout academies, like the Dropout Recovery High School he started in Trenton, which helped increase that city's graduation numbers.
“Rather than defining the whole problem as stopping dropouts, we can also reach out to those who already have,” he says. “There are a slew of people around” who are out of school and would like to go back, from teenage mothers caring for their children to 60-year-olds, he says. “They need a school that is built around their lives. I simply don't understand why urban districts haven't been more imaginative” about this.