America’s Dropout Dilemma: How to Turn Kids on to School

A recent report issued by the EPE Research Center revealed that the high school dropout rate could be as high as 50 percent in some states. That was no surprise to many. Slashed budgets, standardized testing, and changing priorities in federal education laws have turned classrooms into microcosms of the stress facing schools. No one would want to be in that kind of atmosphere if he or she had a choice.

Unfortunately, more and more high school students are exercising that choice, particularly in urban cities, according to the report Cities in Crisis released in April 2008. They leave without graduating, seeking validation elsewhere. The trend is much higher than previously thought.

Because the present helter-skelter method of measuring dropout rates has led to the erroneous conventional wisdom that national rates are a mere 15 percent, many school districts can’t get funding to deal with the issue.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recently urged that a uniform measurement system be instituted to confirm what educators believe are much higher numbers. Only then, it is hoped, will “the silent epidemic” be truly heard.

Why Are So Many Kids Quitting School?
Although there is a strong connection between place and performance, little research has been done to verify it. Qualitative evidence suggests the following issues may contribute to higher dropout rates:

    • Declining economic conditions in urban cities inspire a sense of hopelessness among its inhabitants, particularly those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

    • Increased financial pressure on families of all backgrounds leads to working adults spending longer hours away from the home and family, resulting in greater self-reliance among adolescents than before.

    • Increasingly intense media and advertising campaigns pressure young adults to buy into high-end lifestyles, placing greater economic demands on them and their families.

Clearly, a growing imbalance exists between what is taught in school and what happens outside of school. This disconnect creates time bombs that can be triggered by the slightest provocation:

    • Flunking grades in early years
    • Lack of parental support for academic achievement
    • Pressure from peers to engage in activities that take time out of studying (including pressure to join gangs)
    • Loss of a family member through death or separation
    • Addition of a family member through pregnancy or remarriage
    • Necessity to earn money to help the family

Larger class sizes and lack of expectations for many high school students combine to create an environment where there is little time for student-teacher personal interaction to help them figure out what it is they want to do with their life and scant opportunity to explore their strengths or apply them. As a result, the more tantalizing and pressing short-term life demands are more appealing and important than their school priorities and promise instant gratification.

How Can Schools Diffuse the Situation?
Many have implemented character education into their curricula to involve kids more with their community, teachers, parents, and fellow students.

More than just teaching values and telling students they should be respectful, the most successful programs bring students into the dialogue. Harnessing their leadership skills, tapping into their knowledge of contemporary challenges, and giving them access to the world beyond the school gates can validate both them and the relevance of their school work.

Studies show that struggling students respond well when academics are linked to practical applications and when they’re given opportunities to learn life skills. Too often, high schools overemphasize college preparation and dismiss career preparation.

Here are strategies to embed high academic and vocational standards into your curricula:

  • Identify key standards. Highlight those that will most likely predict career success. Courses that are littered with standards offer scant learning opportunities if teachers and students are struggling to meet them all.
  • Involve students in the decision-making process. Work with them to identify project-based learning programs where they can apply their knowledge, work closely with peers and teachers to build on what they know, and develop new strategies to expand their knowledge. Encourage students to take responsibility for their learning and emphasize the need to respect different learning styles and objectives.
  • Encourage the business community to participate in the curriculum. Training the future workforce is what schools are all about. Contact your Chamber of Commerce and work with representatives from businesses that actively invest in youth. Develop Work Readiness programs that certify youth for employment in entry-level positions. Emphasize to businesses the importance of a more ethical workforce. (Who wants to hire young people who have poor character?) Read the Teacher’s Lounge article in this edition for more tips on involving the community.
  • Maintain a set of values for staff and students. Set high standards and don’t compromise. Reward successes and respond to failures with a comprehensive support system to prevent students from falling between the cracks. Stress that everyone is responsible for each member of the community – in school and beyond.

Philosopher Quintillion enjoined that “the job of the teacher is to identify the [students’] strengths.” We encourage you to take his words one step further. Direct those strengths into your community where the contribution of every student is valued and where character counts.

Secretary Spelling’s proposed measures are accessible in the Federal Register and open for public comment. Title 1 – Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged