By Jennifer Orlowsky
According to data retrieved by the United States Census, in 2008, 3.5 percent of students enrolled in public or private high schools dropped out before completing their secondary education. Since 1972, this number has been steadily declining; the 1972 dropout rate was 6.2 percent.
While the “status” dropout rate (the percentage of individuals in a given age range who are not in school and have not earned a high school diploma or an alternative credential) may at first glance appear high, it is lower now than it has been in the last four decades: according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, in October 2008, “approximately 3 million 16- through 24-year-olds were not enrolled in high school and had not earned a high school diploma or alternative credential.” While this group made up eight percent of the general population, this figure has nearly been cut in half since 1972, when 14.6 percent of the population were high school dropouts.
Though the dropout rate is on the decline, the financial and emotional implications that plague today’s high school dropouts have become more serious in recent years.
National Trends in Dropping Out
This month, the NCES released a compendium report titled “Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972-2008” (much of the data related to this topic ends with the figures for 2008, which could possibly be due to the National Governor’s Association’s formula for collecting annual dropout data and opposition to that formula by various federal educational institutions). The report details several negative consequences of dropping out of high school. While it may seem obvious that high school dropouts generally earn less in their lifetimes than students who either obtain a high school diploma or an alternative high school credential like a GED certification, the report also includes surprising revelations that show that high school dropouts who are 25 or older generally tend to be in poorer health than their diploma bearing counterparts and account for a “disproportionately higher percentage” of prison and death row inmates.
The NCES separates dropout data into two distinct categories: the event dropout rate, which “estimates the percentage of high school students who left high school between the beginning of one school year and the beginning of the next without earning a high school diploma or an alternative credential” and the aforementioned status dropout rate.
Factors such as race, age, and family income appear to be related to these numbers.
The report shows that in 2008, Black and Hispanic students made up the largest percentage of high school dropouts, 6.4 percent and 5.3 percent respectively.
It also shows that students who continue attending high school after their expected graduation date are at an age when they will most likely drop out of high school if they have not already completed their secondary education. Students aged 20 to 24 are the most likely to drop out and make up nearly 15 percent of the event dropout rate.
Students who hail from low income families are four and a half times more likely to drop out of high school then students who are members of higher income families; according to the NCES, the event dropout rate for low income students was almost nine percent versus the two percent dropout rate for higher income students.
Geographic location also makes a difference: event dropout rates vary from state to state. Perhaps the most noticeably different rates are those in Indiana, New Jersey, and Louisiana. While Indiana and New Jersey have an event dropout rate of 1.7 percent, Louisiana’s rate is comparatively the highest at 7.5 percent.
Educational Climate in the United States
According to President Barack Obama, 1.2 million high school students drop out of school annually. In a March 2010 New York Times article titled “Obama Takes Aim at School Dropout Rates,” Jeff Zeleny quotes the president as saying, “In this kind of knowledge economy, giving up on your education and dropping out of school means not only giving up on your future, but it’s also giving up on your family’s future and giving up on your country’s future.” Obama is also quoted as saying that while in the past, students who dropped out of high school could “reasonably expect to find a blue collar job that would pay the bills…that’s just not the case anymore.”
Dr. Carol Brown, the former Dean of Education at Rider University and a current Rider professor and reading specialist, agreed with Obama’s thoughts on this issue and said, “On the practical side, you make less money for the rest of your life. More importantly, you have a lower self image and a feeling of not reaching potential, which I feel everybody needs.”
David Warner has been teaching health, driver’s education, physical education, and adaptive physical education for 39 years at Freehold Township High School, where he has also coached basketball, soccer, and baseball, among other sports.
While Warner attests that he does believe that dropping out of high school can have negative financial consequences, he insists that the emotional consequences are steeper.
“Dropping out is evidence that a student has a bleak outlook on life, and that bleak outlook will remain as they see their peers go off to college and receive degrees,” said Warner. “In these times, if college graduates are having trouble finding jobs, students who dropped out of high school will face unimaginable trouble unless they have a special skill that they can use to get a job.”
In an effort to combat dropout rates, President Obama proposed School Turnaround Grants in his presentation of the 2011 national budget to Congress. However, in order to qualify for these grants, states must review the annual dropout and completion rates of all of their schools, determine which schools have a graduation rate of 60 percent or less, and take drastic measures to revamp these institutions, which may mean shutting them down and transferring students to schools in the district that meet Annual Yearly Performance criteria.
While this may in theory seem like a good idea, and while the individuals responsible for poor hiring practices and ineffective teaching must be held accountable for their actions, this type of overhaul is stressful for students who must leave the familiar environment of one school in order to attend another.
This year’s Race to the Top Fund was another controversial national effort to help keep students in school by making educational practices more effective: while the four fold approach to reforming public school education seemed like a compelling plan, and while the breathtaking $4 billion fund was “the most money Washington has ever given to overhaul schools” according to Sam Dillon, the national competition to receive this funding was akin to a Black Friday frenzy. As Dillon explains in his New York Times article titled “Race to the Top Fund,” “fifteen states, financed by $250,000 grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, enlisted high-powered consultants to polish their proposals,” putting the states that were not backed by the foundation at a disadvantage. Also, the applications for this fund required that states propose grandiose plans for educational transformation backed by supporting documents from local district administrators, which, according to Dillon, “in the case of big states like California number more than 1,000.”
Ultimately, the states awarded the funding were Delaware, the District of Columbia (which was treated as a state for application purposes), Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. This left the 38 other states to face the unfortunate repercussions of the projected $16 billion education budget cuts in the year 2010.
Effective Techniques for Keeping Students in School
Warner believes that even the most seemingly small efforts can give at risk students a reason to complete school.
“At Freehold Township, we stand outside and greet the students as they come in each day and try to talk to them and get to know them,” he said. “If we see a kid who isn’t fitting in, we make an effort to help that student feel like they are a part of the classroom and the community.
Warner also mentioned some of the programs that Freehold Township has created for at risk students. He believes that these programs have transferability and could easily be adapted and modified for schools throughout the nation.
“We have the Great Potential program, in which we target freshmen who are getting low grades and correspond with their teachers to try and figure out what is holding them back,” said Warner. “Our guidance counselors meet with them each week to help them with these issues. We also have peer mentoring, where upperclassmen who are academically and socially successful talk to freshmen and sophomores who are struggling. We have the Breakfast Club for upperclassmen. In this program, we target at risk seniors who may not graduate due to poor grades and we set aside 45 minutes before school starts each day to eat breakfast with them and encourage them to get through their last year of school and enroll in a junior college or community college program.”
Warner believes that rewarding good grades and behavior is another important key to keeping the dropout rate low.
“The effort needs to go both ways,” he said. “[Teachers and administrators] need to make sure to reward students who have great attendance and who don’t have disciplinary violations. We don’t want those sorts of achievements to go unnoticed during a student’s years in high school.”
Brown believes that part of the problem is the expectation that all students will meet Annual Yearly Performance at the same rate and the fact that this progress is measured in the form of standardized tests.
“We are not helping people by expecting all populations to progress at the same time, when we know they don’t,” said Brown. “All this testing is just ignoring and exacerbating the real problem, which is that certain student populations, such as students who are classified special education or students who are English language learners, will not progress the same way as other students because of the way we are teaching them. While I am in favor of standards and telling students they need to reach standards, it is not being done thoughtfully enough.”
Brown believes that creating a routine for students and utilizing specific daily teaching practices to allow students the freedom of self expression can be helpful.
“I think writing can help tremendously,” she said. “If you give students time to write, and then you read what they write and you respond honestly, you will connect to them. I would recommend attending extracurricular events so they see you are interested in them as rounded people and not just students.”
Brown adds that completing meaningful work is another important way to keep at risk students on track at school.
“I think the other thing that helps is to hold your students’ feet to the fire and make them do work,” she said. “Challenge them with work that is indicative of what they have learned, and allow them to see how they are doing in your class. When people see concrete evidence of their own progress, that inspires them to work harder.”
Chapman, C., Laird, J., & Kewal Ramani, A. (2010, December). Trends in High
School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972-2008
Compendium Report. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011012.pdf
Dillon, S. (2010). Race to the Top Fund. The New York Times.
Zeleny, J. (2010, March 1). Obama Takes Aim at School Dropout Rates. The New York Times.