Walk into a classroom full of freshman high school students this semester and picture this: Almost a third of those students will drop out before graduation day. According to the Manhattan Institute, the public high school graduation rate for the class of 2003 was 70 percent. And the graduation rate was far lower for minority students; just 55 percent of African American and 53 percent of Hispanic students completed high school.
That so many students fail to earn a diploma imposes social costs on our country. It also levies a serious personal price on individual students. Census statistics show that high school dropouts earn about $200,000 less than high school graduates during their working lives. And there’s no way to quantify the entire costs of a lifetime without a high school education.
In October, the National Education Association released its plan to solve the school dropout crisis. It recommends the same tired policies the organization throws at every problem in education: increase taxpayer spending on education and expand government’s control over Americans’ lives.
The NEA plan would create new programs (“high school graduation centers for students 19-21 years old”), expand public education to include universal preschool and full-day kindergarten, and add $10 billion to federal education spending.
The NEA’s most shocking recommendation is to make high school graduation or equivalency compulsory for everyone below the age of 21. All states already have compulsory attendance laws that require children to enroll in school up to the age of 16, 17, or 18, depending on the state. Extending that age to 21 would sentence millions of Americans to spend three or more years in a public school system that already proved inadequate.
Imagine how this might sound to a person who dropped out of high school at age 18. That student has been forced to attend public schools that he was (in most cases) assigned to by the government since he was seven. Whether or not he had access to high quality instruction and a safe learning environment was largely outside of his control. After nearly a dozen years, he decided there is little point to remaining in school. But the NEA wants to keep them in the system’s grip.
Rather than making it illegal not to finish high school, policymakers ought to consider strategies to encourage children to finish school by meeting their individual needs.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently published an important report studying the dropout problem from the students’ perspective. Former students point to several common reasons for dropping out. For example, 47 percent said classes weren’t interesting, and 45 percent said they started high school poorly prepared by their early schooling. Many students cited personal reasons, from needing to earn money to needing to care for a family member.
The survey also studied what might have kept students in school. Common responses included improving teaching and curricula to make school more relevant, enhancing the connection between school and work, improving teacher quality, and creating school environments that focus on academics. Fully 57 percent of dropouts said their schools didn’t do enough to make students feel safe. Seven in ten favored increased supervision, and 62 percent supported more classroom discipline.
The Gates Foundation report proposes a number of strategies to address these problems, but the most promising is to provide different schools for different students. “Instead of the usual ‘one-size-fits all’ schools,” the report explains, “districts should develop options for students, including a curriculum that connects what they are learning in the classroom with real life experiences and with work, smaller learning communities with more individualized instruction, and alternative schools that offer specialized programs to students at-risk of dropping out.”
The dropout problem won’t be solved by any one policy-and certainly not by the NEA’s tired big government plan. Policymakers should start by looking at the students’ perspective and students’ individual needs. Meeting those needs begins providing more options that will ensure more students access to a safe and quality school that best meets their unique needs.