Monday, April 10, 2006

Children Who Are Left Behind: Dropout Nation

CNN has a good summary of the cover story in this week's Time Magazine (The Time article itself requires a $1.99 subscription.) about the lives of high school students who don't graduate:
It's lunchtime at Shelbyville High School, 30 miles southeast of Indianapolis, Indiana, and more than 100 teenagers are buzzing over trays in the cafeteria.

Like high schoolers everywhere, they have arranged themselves by type: jocks, preps, cheerleaders, dorks, punks and gamers, all with tables of their own.

Shawn Sturgill, 18, had a clique of his own at Shelbyville High, a dozen or so friends who sat at the same long bench in the hallway outside the cafeteria. They were, Shawn says, an average crowd.

These days the bench is mostly empty. Of his dozen friends, Shawn says just one or two are still at Shelbyville High.

If some cliques are defined by a common sport or a shared obsession with Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, Shawn's friends ended up being defined by their mutual destiny: nearly all of them became high school dropouts.

Shawn's friends are not alone in their exodus. Of the 315 Shelbyville students who showed up for the first day of high school four years ago, only 215 are expected to graduate.

In today's data-happy era of accountability, testing and No Child Left Behind, here is the most astonishing statistic in the whole field of education: an increasing number of researchers are saying that nearly one out of three public high school students won't graduate, not just in Shelbyville but around the nation.

For Latinos and African-Americans, the rate approaches an alarming 50 percent. Virtually no community, small or large, rural or urban, has escaped the problem.

There is a small but hardy band of researchers who insist the dropout rates don't quite approach those levels. They point to their pet surveys that suggest a rate of only 15 percent to 20 percent.

The dispute is difficult to referee, particularly in the wake of decades of lax accounting by states and schools. But the majority of analysts and lawmakers have come to this consensus: the numbers have remained unchecked at approximately 30 percent through two decades of intense educational reform, and the magnitude of the problem has been consistently, and often willfully, ignored.

That's starting to change.

During his most recent State of the Union address, President Bush promised more resources to help children stay in school, and Democrats promptly attacked him for lacking a specific plan.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has trained its moneyed eye on the problem, funding "The Silent Epidemic," a study issued in March that has gained widespread attention both in Washington and in statehouses around the country.

The attention comes against a backdrop of rising peril for dropouts.

If their grandparents' generation could find a blue-collar niche and prosper, the latest group is immediately relegated to the most punishing sector of the economy, where whatever low-wage jobs haven't yet moved overseas are increasingly filled by even lower-wage immigrants.

Dropping out of high school today is to your societal health what smoking is to your physical health, an indicator of a host of poor outcomes to follow, from low lifetime earnings to high incarceration rates to a high likelihood that your children will drop out of high school and start the cycle anew.

Identifying the problem is just the first step.

The next moves are being made by towns like Shelbyville, where a loose coalition of community leaders and school administrators have, for the first time, placed dropout prevention at the top of the agenda. Now they are gamely trying to identify why kids are leaving and looking for ways to reverse the tide.

"Ten years ago," says Shelbyville principal Tom Zobel, "if we had a problem student, the plan was, 'OK, let's figure out how to get rid of this kid.' Now we have to get them help."
Students who drop out of high school often find themselves competing with immigrants (both legal and illegal) for entry-level jobs, which makes the going even tougher.
See our latest education-related entries right here.