Calling a State of Emergency: American High School Dropouts

Over the course of this school year I have seen a steady stream of articles touting improvements in graduation rates. As the school year began, one article that caught my eye was from the Chicago Tribune. Since I started my career in CPS I was curious to see how much dropout rates had improved (or declined). When I moved to Chicago at the start of the 80s everyone was concerned with recent increases in dropouts, which held steady for a few years at around 43%. I remember being shocked that the education system was failing so many kids in Chicago, and that city and state officials weren’t treating it like a national emergency. I quickly found out that Chicago was not alone. The same thing was happening in urban centers across the country. My hometown school district of Detroit, for example, was even worse, posting about a 50% dropout rate during the same time period.

So how does that compare to current rates?

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the numbers in the Tribune.  The graduation rate last year in CPS was just over 73%, and it has been steadily rising for the past 5 years.  A 30% increase is obviously a tremendous improvement. It wasn’t until I was looking at the Detroit numbers recently that I started to question things. If you have been on a school board, or part of a school’s administration, you already know that there is a difference in how dropout rates and graduation rates are calculated. You may have also questioned this if you added the two in a given year and realized they don’t add up to 100%. Also, the way these rates are calculated, reported, and verified has changed several times over the years, which makes it difficult to compare.   Even if you accept the most optimistic numbers school districts provide at face value, the issue remains devastating to our nation. Let me try to illustrate my point with some visual aides.

In 1963 the civil rights movement came to a head as people from all over the country marched on Washington to protest injustice, and to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. The National Mall was overflowing with supporters. As a child I remember thinking I finally understood what the expression “A sea of people” meant. Here is a picture taken that day that I found through Creative Commons from the National Museum of American History.

King Speach

So what does this have to do with dropout rates? “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” Dr. King spoke so eloquently that day about the American dream, and the inalienable rights of all Americans. Although we have made strides in helping more students achieve those dreams, the fact remains that 5 times as many students in America dropped out of high school last year, than were in attendance that glorious day in 1963. That equates to approximately double the entire current population of Washington D.C.

king speech x 5

I was shocked when I realized that 1,200,000 students dropped out of high school in 2015-16, and that is in just one year. When multiplied over a generation the numbers become staggering. At the rate students are currently dropping out of high school – the rate lauded by many districts recently – the number of people who drop out will exceed the total population of New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and the rest of the top 20 largest American cities combined!

I need to take a quick bird walk here to set something straight. I have learned that the U.S. sometimes has a hard time facing reality.  I did some fact checking yesterday. An article I read stated that “The United States had some of the highest graduation rates of any developed country,” but now ranked near the bottom of the 27 developed nations. Since there was no citation in the article I wanted to track one down so I could include the comment in this blog post. I spent several hours yesterday looking for the statistics showing that the U.S. lead K-12 education worldwide at some point in our history. The reality is that the United States has never scored well in math and science compared to other developed countries, and comparative testing has not been happening very long. The Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) conducted one of the first popular studies of mathematical achievement in 12 countries in 1965. Israel and England scored the highest with a mean score in the high 30s. The United States scored the worst, with a mean score of 13.8.

We are currently ranked 22 out of the 27 countries that are considered developed. We may have improved dramatically since the 1980s, but we continue to fall further and further behind the rest of the developed world. One-point-two-million students dropped out of high school last year, and we rank 22nd out 27? Should we really be patting ourselves on the back?

We need to declare a State of Emergency on the scale of the response to hurricane Katrina. That storm ultimately devastated whole communities and displaced around 400,000 people. These Katrina victims, however, are equivalent to only 1/3 of the students that were displaced from our nation’s high schools last year. For months after Katrina there was a never-ending stream of news, commentary, and support. The American people were outraged that the governments response to the disaster, and in particular, to the inhumane treatment of people from poor minority neighborhoods.

Where is the outrage for the drop-out crisis?

Most people would probably not be surprised that facing very poor job prospects, and almost inevitable poverty, that dropouts commit about 75% of the crimes in America. It’s not Mexican immigrants, and it’s not Muslim terrorists. Most crime is being committed by our disenfranchised former students – kids that grow up to be adults without any viable path to a better future.

Where is the outpouring of concern and volunteer support?

If one were to put aside quality of life issues, and just focus on the impact the disenfranchised will have on our economy, the numbers are staggering.  At lifetime cost to taxpayers of $292,000 per each dropout, the financial burden we will have to bear from just the students who dropped out in 2016 will be $350,000,000,000. For those having trouble counting up all the zeros, that’s 350 billion, yes, with a “B,” and we are already on the hook. But this goes on year after year, decade after decade. In just one generation it could add up to as much as 8.75 trillion dollars!

Where is the avalanche of government, corporate, and private financial support?

Some of my friends and family say that students who drop out are just lazy, or angry, or have bad families. The reasoning goes that since dropping out is a choice, it’s different. They think that the issue is that simple, and is not their problem. Ask Community in Schools (CIS) if it is that simple. They are one of the few organizations that has documented success. They are different than other programs because they take a systems approach. They conduct assessments to understand the community and the students’ needs. They are committed to change over time as demonstrated by their embedded coordinator. And they are able to rally all of the non-profit and for-profit providers in the community that can meet essential needs within the community. The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University has a vetted database of programs and services dedicated to dropout reduction and prevention. Organizations in the database that are rated with 3 graduation caps by NDPC, like CIS, are rated as having “Strong Evidence of Effectiveness.”

CIS’ limitation, however, is that they deal primarily with community-based systems that surround the school (e.g., healthcare, after school programs, etc.), but they don’t address the systems issues within classrooms and schools (e.g., curriculum, pedagogy, distributed leadership, etc.) that need to be addressed for optimal learning to take place.

One-to-One Institute also takes a systems approach to transformation, but focuses on 7 system categories that directly affect learning, culture, and the efficient administration of schools. Our co-authored Project RED research identified key factors that lead to higher student achievement and cost effectiveness. Technology plays a key role in the transformation, but the focus is on learning and empowering students.

In Project RED Phase III we worked with 20 districts we labeled “Signature Districts.” To become a Signature District they had to commit to adhering to the Project RED Design as we tracked their progress over three school years. We are currently in the process of publishing a series of briefs on our findings. We believe that if a district follows the PR Design, students could potentially double their academic achievement, and it could be revenue neutral for the district.

There are a growing number of non-profit organizations and for profit vendors that have developed and tested learning products, and have documented results for their piece of the puzzle. There is no longer any excuse for implementing things that don’t work. The research is clear. It is possible to completely eradicate high school dropouts.

  • With so much at stake, we all must take action and build from each other’s best practices.
  • We need to find ways to help others understand that we must make this a national priority.
  • Use research, like Project RED, and visit NDPC to find other research to inform your opinions.
  • Insist that your government and education leaders utilize programs that have documented results, and can integrate their solution into your new digital systems.

It is possible to completely eradicate high school dropouts, but it won’t happen until we all commit to making it a national priority.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D

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