This Guest Opinion appears online only and not in the Tucson Citizen’s print edition.
A recent Oprah “Special Report” and a Time magazine cover story exposed a shocking statistic: Nearly 1 in 3 American students do not graduate from high school. One in 3.
Prompting the coverage was “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives on High School Dropouts,” a report by Civic Enterprises and Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Gates Foundation.
The study, which detailed survey and focus-group responses of more than 500 dropouts nationwide, sought to determine why students drop out and what might help them complete their education.
Surprisingly, only 35 percent of participants identified fear of failure as a major factor in their decision to leave school. Seventy percent thought they could have graduated, and two-thirds said “they would have worked harder if more had been demanded of them.”
These findings seem to refute the common assumption that students drop out because they are unable to meet academic standards. With almost 9 out of 10 respondents earning passing grades, it is reasonable to believe many of these students were underchallenged as opposed to underachievers.
The overwhelming majority of participants said they might not have dropped out if their schools offered better instruction (81 percent) and fostered an academic climate (65 percent). Not being challenged increased student boredom and absenteeism levels. As one respondent put it, “They just let you pass, anything you got.”
Even though national data point to absenteeism as the most common indicator that a student is disengaged and likely to drop out, just under half of the participants surveyed said their school contacted their parents or themselves when they were absent or dropped out.
“Students rise to expectations, and they fall to expectations,” says Russlynn Ali, director of the Education Trust West. Ali faults the “cycle of low expectations” in the nation’s public schools for producing high school dropouts and poorly trained workers.
If we want students to meet higher expectations, we should demand the same of the institutions educating them. The authors of the report question whether current laws and policies have the “perverse and unintended consequences of facilitating students dropping out of high school.”
The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to demonstrate that they are making adequate yearly progress in both academic performance and graduation rates, and makes states responsible for implementing accountability systems.
If schools are not held accountable for graduation rates but are rewarded for achieving test score gains, they have an incentive “to ‘push out’ low-performing students whose test scores would bring down school averages,” the Gates Foundation report explains.
Loosely enforced and unsystematically implemented NCLB requirements have permitted public schools to fail students at risk of dropping out. Combating the dropout epidemic requires a prescription for change.
The best way to effect change in the educational system is to introduce more school choice. Allowing a portion of per-student funding to follow students to the public, charter or private school of their choice would make schools responsive to the needs of students, not the mandates of loosely enforced federal laws.
A grant system would create a market for schools that offer unique programs and unconventional learning approaches to attract otherwise disengaged students.
Early evidence shows that school choice cut the dropout rate by more than half among low-income inner city students in Milwaukee.
That’s not surprising. When funding follows students, schools have an incentive to detect early warning signs associated with dropping out, contact parents regarding absences, develop individualized graduation plans and provide mentors for at-risk students.
Another way to expand options for students is to create more charter schools. Of the 141 charter high schools in Arizona, 11 target “at risk” students, according to the Center for Education Reform, which ranks Arizona second among the states for the number of dropout-prevention charter high schools.
While Arizona has one of the nation’s strongest charter laws, more authorizers and less burdensome regulation would make charter schools available to more students. Some of the state’s best charter schools have two- to three-year waiting lists. Potential dropouts need options now.
With 1 in 3 public high school students walking out the door, we need to make sure other avenues exist that will steer these teens in the right direction. Injecting competition into the system through more charter schools and a universal grant program will spur improvements in public schools and offer students immediate alternatives to the system that has proven ineffective.
Arwynn Mattix is a research assistant at the Goldwater Institute, www.goldwaterinstitute.org.