High School Dropouts a Major Issue In U.S. Education System


By John A. Ostenburg

On any given day, 7,000 high school students will stop going to school — permanently. That number mounts to 1.2 million students who each year constitute a new graduating class of "dropouts."

In his book, Raising the Grade: How High School Reform Can Save Our Youth and Our Nation, former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise — also a former congressman and now the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education — notes that every day "Before the last school bus pulls away from the westernmost school in Hawaii, almost 7,000 students will have dropped out of high school, effectively disappearing into a social and economic netherworld where there are few good opportunities and many bad outcomes."

Fifty years ago, students could drop out of high school and still find a good job. Today, that’s almost an impossibility. Certainly a handful of exceptions will find worthwhile employment in family businesses or in a small number of areas where sheer talent is the principal criterion, such as art or music, but the vast majority will struggle for years to come in the effort to find an adequate income.

Instead, members of the dropout population most likely will move from job to job without the benefits of health insurance, pension, paid vacations and the like. Many will turn to unsavory endeavors and eventually find themselves imprisoned. Their inability to provide adequate lifestyles for their family members often will result in succeeding generations that also will struggle to gain a foothold in society.

In today’s world, stopping the educational process at the time one receives a high school diploma in itself is hardly the best course for gaining meaningful employment. Increasingly, some level of post-secondary education is becoming a necessity for successfully fulfilling the new technological requirements of virtually all employment fields. Lots of high school dropouts eventually realize this reality and seek to gain a GED certificate as an equivalent to a high school diploma; they then move on to a community college or even a university to play catch-up on their education. While an advisable course for those who have dropped out, the far better course would have been to stay in school in the first place.

The challenge for educators is to make high school appear meaningful for students at the time they are still in the classroom. The vast majority of dropouts confess later in life that they erred in leaving school; it’s a major task for educators to make those individuals aware at the time of decision-making that staying in school offers far greater possibilities than does leaving.

Organizations such as Governor Wise’s Alliance attack the problem from a global perspective by analyzing the impact that high school dropouts have on the nation as a whole. For example, the Alliance has statistical data that shows an additional $335 billion in salaries would have been part of the national economy in years to come if just the dropouts from the Class of 2009 had stayed in school. The Alliance report, "The High Cost of High School Dropouts: What the Nation Pays for Inadequate High Schools," provides extensive research on the various ways in which the economic condition of the nation is adversely affected by the large number of students who fail to complete their secondary educations.

Over the years, career education has been put forward as the best possible answer for the dropout problem. Educators have felt that they could keep kids in school if it could be demonstrated to them that the learning they were receiving would be a direct pathway to employment. Today, however, with statistics that show the average worker changing jobs approximately seven times during his/her working lifespan, training for just one career path could end up more of a detriment than an advantage. As a result, career education is not as appealing as it once was, since the guarantee of permanent employment no longer is as effective a selling point.

However, if the career path onto which students are directed could be shown as one where the employment potential will increase rather than decrease, then perhaps students would have a higher level of interest in traveling down it. One place where this appears to be the case is in training for technological positions in job classifications related to the "greening" of the nation. Given the current projections on the impact that global warming will have on the climate, jobs in both high-tech and low-tech energy-related industries appear destined to be good marketplaces for the job-seekers of tomorrow. Given the right training today, many high school students in career curricula programs could find themselves job-ready upon graduation.

In Chicago, the effort to provide that kind of future-oriented career education can be found at Austin Polytechnical Academy, a high school in the Chicago Public Schools system that’s operated by the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council (CMRC). Austin Polytech benefits from the coalition of organized labor, the business community, government officials, educational leaders, and community organizations that has been put together under the CMRC umbrella. The school is designed to help fulfill the CMRC mission of making the Chicago region a hotbed for the kind of manufacturing that is necessary for a more energy-efficient future.

Because of its success, Austin Polytech has received wide acclaim, even from President Barack Obama, and CMRC officials now are preparing for an expansion of the concept into more schools, some even beginning in the lower grades as a better preparation for student success at the secondary level. And while the emphasis at Austin Polytech may be on manufacturing, its curriculum is focused both on the student who may be desiring to become employed immediately upon graduation and on the one who intends to go on for a college education that will enhance his or her technological understanding. In either case, the students are able to visualize how what they are learning in the classrooms of Austin Polytech will position them for success in the future.

Austin Polytechnical Academy’s Tech Tigers host Robotics Workshop

Meanwhile, though, general education at the secondary level needs an even greater shot-in-the-arm than what simply will be provided by re-focusing the emphasis for career education. Frankly the major problems that result in high dropout rates have been festering for a long, long time prior to the actual act of a student turning his back on the schoolhouse door. Many of these future dropouts have become disenchanted with education while still in the elementary grades. For some reason, they begin dreaming of the earliest possible date when they can say "good-bye" to the classroom for good.

And what could be some of the reasons behind that kind of thinking? I’d like to posit that the current preoccupation with tests and test scores may be a major one. When testing — rather than learning — becomes the projected outcome of education, failure is bound to result. Testing ideally is simply a measurement of what a student has learned, so the teacher then can work to fill in the gap and take the student beyond his or her current level of achievement. The current emphasis on testing, by contrast, instead labels a student as a "success" or a "failure" based on his or her test score. In this latter case, testing no longer is an educational tool; rather it has gained the status of being the educational outcome. For those who do well on the test, that may be no big deal; for those who do poorly, however, it’s a solid reason to begin hating school. This is especially true when politicians and national media continually harp about the "failing" American education system. Who really wants to continue being a part of a "failing" anything?

Increasing meaningful technical education and decreasing the emphasis on testing throughout the school system may not be the perfect solution to all the problems that lead to high dropout rates, but I believe they may be two effective steps in that direction. And — what the heck! — even one step in the right direction is a lot better than no steps.

I think we can take our cue from Governor Wise. "The ultimate goal of school transformation is to promote a support environment in which students can acquire the knowledge and skills they need," he notes, adding, "There are many ways to accomplish this."

So let’s just decide on one or two ways and get the process moving.

John A. Ostenburg is mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He is the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union. E-mail him at [email protected]. This article is from his blog The Outpost Observer, Copyright © 2009 John Ostenburg, used with permission.