Education Monday: D.C. High School Dropouts
Just as we have cleaved into a society with a separate warrior class and a much larger group of people who don't know anyone who's in the military, the high school dropout is becoming a phenomenon that is increasingly restricted to certain places--inner cities, declining suburbs, struggling rural outposts.
The dramatic increase in the number of students who graduate from high school and at least take a stab at college has helped to transform the American economy, and it has become easy to assume that high school dropouts are a fading factor in this country. But the fact is that on one side of the racial and economic divides, the percentage of teens who drop out of high school remains disturbingly high.
Washington's school system remains an island of failure, according to a new study by the Alliance for Excellent Education. In 2004, the last year for which data is available, only 58 percent of D.C. students were graduated from high school with their class, the Alliance says. And about 55 percent of D.C.'s new ninth graders this year read so far below grade level that they are at serious risk of not graduating in four years.
Those numbers reflect the economic and racial isolation of so many students in the District's public schools. Nationwide, while more than 70 percent of students graduate from high school with their class, only about half of Hispanic and black students do so. In some states, the Alliance says, the gap in graduation rates between white students and black or Hispanic students is more than 40 percent.
Similarly, young people coming from families in the top quartile of income are seven times more likely to have completed high school than their peers coming from the bottom quartile of income.
Dropouts are deeply concentrated in a relatively tiny number of schools in northern and western cities and in southern states. The factors that lead to dropping out include a failure to see any purpose in staying in school, a failure to make personal connections with any people in authority at school, and preparation so poor that kids can't find any way to succeed in high school.
In Washington, Chancellor Michelle Rhee's ambitious commitment to turn around the results in high schools will soon run head-on into the bedeviling problem of preparation so poor that many kids cannot begin to do high school-level work. The report from the Alliance on D.C. public schools argues that there is a tremendous economic incentive to improve the schools and keep kids enrolled:
The District would save almost $20 million in health care costs for each class of dropouts, over their lifetimes, had these dropouts stayed in school and earned their diplomas.
District households would have over $167 million more in accumulated wealth if all heads of households had graduated from high school.
More than $5 billion would be added to the District's economy by 2020 if students of color graduated at the same rate as white students.
If D.C.'s high schools graduated all students ready for college, the city would save more than $1.5 million a year in community college remediation costs and lost earnings.
The District's economy would see a combination of savings and revenue of more than $69 million in reduced crime spending and increased earnings each year if the male high school graduation rate increased by just 5 percent.
I don't think many people need persuading that there would be enormous savings if the government didn't have to deal with the human results of failed schools. The problem is not lack of interest in solving the problem; it's lack of a clear, proven method for turning around those results in a big, urban system. Years and years of studies point to what works in successful schools, but too often, those studies focus on schools that have a very different population from the D.C. system. The kids in successful schools often come from the other side of the social divide.
(How deep is that social divide? Check out these numbers: More than three times as many black people live in prison cells as in college dorms, according to the Census Bureau. Similarly, there are 2.7 Hispanic inmates for every Hispanic living in college housing. By contrast, more than twice as many non-Hispanic whites live at college than in prison.)
There has been encouraging news in recent years from schools that have a mixed population--mixed in every possible sense, socially, economically, racially. But what's worked in places such as Montgomery and Fairfax counties is well nigh impossible in the District, where the system serves a student population that is overwhelmingly black and majority poor. It may be that the ultimate solution for the D.C. schools has less to do with specific classroom reforms than with an effort to alter the mix of kids in each school by attracting middle class families back into the system.
That, of course, involves more social engineering than many people are willing to accept. The drop-out rate, it seems, is not a simple educational question, but rather one that reflects the very structure of our society.
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