What would the media do without manufactured crises? From global warming to bird flu to the obesity epidemic, news magazines, cable shows and local television news rush from one hysteria to the next in their attempt to entice readers and viewers.
The latest non-story to make headlines involves high school dropouts, what Time dubbed "Dropout Nation" in a recent cover story. "The number of high school students who leave before graduating is higher — much higher — than you think," the magazine breathlessly intones. But the story fails to provide much evidence of this new catastrophe.
Although Time claims "an increasing number of researchers are saying that nearly 1 out of 3 public high school students won’t graduate," and points to research that maintains that "for Latinos and African Americans, the rate approaches an alarming 50 percent," the facts the magazine musters to support the allegations are sparse and misleading.
Education statistics — especially those involving individual school graduation rates — are particularly difficult to assess. Americans are among the most mobile populations in the world. On average, almost one in five American families moves each year, sometimes within a city or state, but about 6 percent move out of state. Tracking whether or not an individual student graduates from a particular high school, then, becomes very difficult.
Time’s cover story, for example, focuses on one high school in Middle America, Shelbyville High School near Indianapolis. "Of the 315 Shelbyville students who showed up for the first day of high school four years ago, only 215 are expected to graduate," the magazine notes. "The 100 others have simply melted away, dropping out in a slow, steady bleed that has left the town wondering how it could have let down so many of its kids." But if Shelbyville is typical of other American towns, many of those 100 students have simply changed schools because their parents moved.
Time recounts a few anecdotal examples of Shelbyville dropouts, including former students who went on to earn General Educational Development (GED) diplomas and attend college, and one student who earned his degree while incarcerated. But anecdotes don’t prove much, and they certainly can’t constitute evidence of a national trend.
Even statistics reported by high schools or local education agencies are notoriously unreliable. The best data come from national surveys such as the Current Population Survey taken each month by the U.S. Census Bureau. The CPS sample is made up of about 50,000 households and is considered one of the most comprehensive data sources in the nation.
The CPS (2004) shows that 90 percent of non-Hispanic whites 25 years of age and older have graduated high school, as have 81 percent of blacks, but only 58 percent of Hispanics. But the data on Hispanics is somewhat misleading, at least in assessing whether U.S. public schools are failing to graduate their Hispanic students. About half the adult Hispanic population consists of immigrants, most of whom came here in their late teens or as adults and never attended American schools.
In 2001, according to a U.S. Department of Education study, 85 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics had completed high school or higher. And even among Hispanic immigrants, those who enroll in American schools aren’t much more likely than the native-born to drop out of school, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center.
The U.S. doesn’t appear on the verge of becoming Time’s "Dropout Nation," but there are plenty of groups out there that will latch on to such bad-news scenarios to advance their own agenda. Advocacy groups will tout the numbers to demand more special programs for minority and "at-risk" students. Teachers unions will demand higher spending on education — much of which will go into their members’ salaries. Liberals will blame President Bush or the Republican-controlled Congress for failing to "fully fund" education, a favorite buzz-phrase on the Left.
Education attainment in the U.S. has increased dramatically over the years. In 1950, barely more than a third of Americans 25 and older had completed high school; today almost that many earn a bachelor’s degree or higher. We spend almost 8 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on all levels of education, more than $850 billion in 2003.
There will always be some young people who decide not to stay in school, with unfortunate consequences for their lifetime earning potential. But their numbers are small and shrinking, hardly cause for yet more media-driven angst about the future of the nation.