Saturday, May 12, 2007

Dropping Out of School

I read this article earlier this week: New Figures Show High Dropout Rate Federal Officials Say Problem Is Worst For Urban Schools, Minority Males by Daniel de Vise, Washington Post Staff Writer, Thursday, May 10, 2007. Although the Post focuses on urban problems, the study they cite has bad news for the entire country.

The statistics paint a dire portrait: Seventy percent of students nationwide earned diplomas in four years as of 2003, the latest data available nationally, a much lower rate than that reported by the vast majority of school systems....

The summit marks a growing national sense that high schools are facing a dropout crisis. The extent of the problem -- only two students in three graduate with their class -- has been clear for years within the education community but not among members of the general public, who, according to surveys, believe that nearly 90 percent of students graduate from high school.

The statistics come from's New Graduation Rate Resource from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which gives "comparable, reliable data on graduation rates...for every school district in the country." The site was a little slow even with broadband, but I did find all the information promised, and the map interface is quite nice. Of course, I checked our local school system, and found that it is right at the national average, with a graduation rate of two out of three students. This corroborates statistics distributed by the West Virginia Adult Basic Education program, which used to employ me as a teacher.

Before I started teaching adult basic education, I never really thought about school dropouts, who they were, why they dropped out, or what their skills were. About 100 people passed through my classroom (some of them very briefly). None of them were members of minorities, but I can't think of any other generalization to make about them. I never asked anyone personal questions, but most of them wanted to explain why they dropped out of school. Their reasons were as varied as the students themselves.

Some of these drop-outs had excellent academic skills, others couldn't read at all. Some were there to please their probation officers and some had dropped out of school to care for sick family members. I learned that any teenager could drop out of school, given the wrong circumstances.

I also learned that even these new figures under-report the drop-out rate in that they only consider grades 9 through 12. If students turn 16 in the eighth grade, as quite a few do, they can drop out of school without counting toward the school district's dropout rate.

Failure to graduate cuts young people out of entry-level jobs, even jobs mucking out barns in Greenbrier County. More damaging than this is the sense of inferiority that so many kids feel. They may actually have better academic skills than kids who graduate, but they were "quitters," and a lot of them go on quitting at other things in their lives. It takes an enormous amount of effort to reverse this life pattern, and I've had many adult basic ed students with excellent skills find excuses to avoid taking the GED test. This is especially sad because there is a tremendous self-esteem boost that goes along with getting a GED.

My father finished the eighth grade in 1918, and that was considered a complete education for his time and place. He was a life-long reader, and could do enviable feats of mental calculation, including square roots and trigonometry. He could recite poems, and name all the townships in Union County and all the counties in Iowa. Many high school graduates today have less education than he did. It seems Americans are losing educational ground, that education is returning to its old status as a perk for the wealthy. Rhetoric like "no child left behind" masks the death of free public education for everyone.

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