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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.

By Marc Fisher |  October 15, 2007; 7:43 AM ET
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Everything's balanced out. They can stay true to their ethnic roots and can't be accused of selling out or "acting white". So their racial self-esteem doesn't suffer.

Posted by: Stick | October 15, 2007 9:17 AM

The perpetual cycle of poverty can be broken through education. There are many places to put blame for the alarming drop out rate. Placement of blame won't accomplish anything. What needs to happen is kids need to be provided with motivation and incentives to graduate high school. They have to be given some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Businesses and organizations provide their employees and workers all kinds of incentives to get them motivated to work. Why not apply some of those same principles to the school kids?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 15, 2007 9:20 AM

While DCPS have far worse stats on dropout rates and low test scores, Montgomery and Fairfax County still have a ways to go in improving their scores as well. These school districts don't have the high poverty problems to deal with, yet they still have unacceptable minority dropout rates and achievement gaps.

FCPS's latest Minority Achievement Report does nothing more than blame the minority parents and put the burden on them to fix the problem. Until school systems start doing a serious self-examination of their own failures, nothing will get better.

We need to ALL take an interest in this crisis and put pressure on the schools to help these kids. Many of these kids lack parental advocacy so we need to be a voice for them.

Posted by: takebackourschools | October 15, 2007 9:49 AM

"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."

Schools can never - even in Montgomery County - "hold the hand" of students who have trouble learning. At some point, the parents need to advocate for their children and help.

When you get educated parents, they have the time to help their kids since they can get buy working one job - or they make enough to hire help. Either way, the "richer" schools don't solve the "troubled student" problem. It's just better parenting.

Kids dropping out begin a vicious cycle when the kid has kids at an early age, are unable to advocate for the kid, and then the kid drops out.

Posted by: Failed school or failed families? | October 15, 2007 10:07 AM

"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..."

And just think about how much richer we would be as a country (and a planet) if everyone were above average! What's missing from articles like this is an understanding that not everyone is bright enough to graduate high school, at least not from high schools that see their role as preperatory for higher education. I'd guess you need an IQ of around 85 to graduate from public high schools, and ~25% of Americans don't have that, and no amount of fantasizing about recovering lost tax dollars or complaining about teachers is going to change that. Moreover, whatever educational reforms might be effective cannot be studied scientifically without controlling for the IQs of the students, as otherwise you'll never know whether your brilliant innovation really worked or you just happened to get smart kids. This basic lack of understanding of both the common-sense notion of intelligence and the scientific method is why the Education industry is such a failure.

Posted by: qaz1231 | October 15, 2007 10:11 AM

whether it's fear of "acting white," lack of motivation or absence of encouragement on the home front, drop-outs end up costing taxpayers once again when, as adults, they expect special job training to make up for the skills they chose not to acquire thru education. while I'm sympathetic to those who are deprived, anyone who blew off a free education in high school should be required to pay back for any job training further down the road.

Posted by: eo mcmars | October 15, 2007 10:27 AM

If "everyone were above average" then, by definition, everyone would be average.

Posted by: Stick | October 15, 2007 10:29 AM

No one is suggesting that there can't be below average students and IQs, they're just suggesting that the DC government work to insure that everyone within the DC system is above the national average.

Posted by: DCer | October 15, 2007 10:43 AM

and Help me understand something blacks of DC. "Acting white" = someone intelligent, well spoken, articulate, gets good grades. No wonder your community is in shambles.

Posted by: Jimmy Vegas | October 15, 2007 10:51 AM

As a HS graduate of DCPS and a college graduate I am so tired of the blame being placed everywhere other than its main place. The home. Myself and my classmates who attended Banneker all graduated and are currently productive members of society. None of us were from affluent families, most came from single parent homes and at 27/28 we're doctors, lawyers, soldiers, teachers and professors. All but 3 (latinos) of us are black. You do not need a PhD to ensure your child does well in school. Refuse to accept laziness and bad behavior. They may not get straight A's but a motivated student with a willingness to learn can get far. As a parent of a 2nd grader currently attending a wonderful DCPS it is MY JOB to ensure that she is at school on time and ready to work. No amount of money can make a child a good student. If the parents or guardians aren't doing their job nothing will change.

Posted by: Reese | October 15, 2007 10:58 AM

DCer, you don't seem to understand the statistics of this problem. Below-average students are not all clumped somewhere out in Idaho. They're everywhere- about half the population anywhere, to be exact. How is the DC gov't supposed to "insure" that everyone in its system is above average (national or otherwise) when the students simply aren't? Qaz123 was discussing IQ, which is not something the school system can change.

Posted by: Rachel | October 15, 2007 11:15 AM

It would help if the the schools offered tracks of practical career training (like auto mechanic, chef, bookkeeper, etc.)

But unless the mayor and the juvenile justice system GET SERIOUS about crime, (which they shamefully have NOT,) that path will appear more attractive to many than sitting in class.
.

Posted by: gitarre | October 15, 2007 11:52 AM

The statistics you site are ridiculous.

Comparing the entire prison population of African American men to those of college age in college dorms and as you say those living off campus which in the case of all those who can't afford dorm rooms aren't inlcuded takes away from what you are trying to say. Hyperoble is no way to make a good argument.

Of course we need to find ways to get young men and for that matter women to graduate high school and move either into college or successful careers. There are many careers that don't require college but can provide for inidividuals a great way to support themselves and their families.

One good program that is now in the DC schools is JAG-DC. It is a program designed to help keep kids in school long enough to graduate and to help them find careers or college when they do. It is run by Francie Glendenning.

Again if you are going to use statistics use ones that make sense.

Posted by: peter | October 15, 2007 12:03 PM

The comic strip "Candorville" wisely pointed out that the prison population to dorm population statistic is misleading because it ignores students living in off-campus housing. The fact that there are tons of black men in prison is evidence of major problems, but please be careful with this sort of statistics.

Posted by: William | October 15, 2007 12:35 PM

As a parent of a 4 yr. old just starting pre-school I believe it is first the parents responsiblity to educate their children. This is done not just by making sure they get to school on time & checking their homework. Education is more than school, it encompasses culture (art, music,theatre), social(etiquette,proper communication, geography. Do what you can do to expand your children's horizons beyond a 2 block square radius of your home. You don't have to be rich to expose your children to the world. DC is a wonderful place to raise children in this respect. There are always free events, and programs designed to help impoverished children succeed. I also believe that DCPS needs to improve the schoold buildings and principals need to make sure that teachers are performing well. Too many of our teachers don't care about the students anymore. It shows in the shambles the school properties are in, and poor grades.
"There are many places to put blame for the alarming drop out rate. Placement of blame won't accomplish anything."

Posted by: Kromeklia | October 15, 2007 12:44 PM

A major part of the problem is we don't have enough parent's like Reese. Reese: Keep up the good job and pass it on to your 2nd grader. You are a credit to all parents everywhere, and set an example that is tough for others to follow when it is so easy to blame somebody else for a child's failure.

A good set a values at home is critical for long-term success in any field of endevour. Without learning the difference between right & wrong, learning a good work ethic, learning to take responsibility for one's own actions, the child is doomed to failure. Those are things learned at home. It is not the school's job to tell our kids how to behave.

Posted by: SoMD | October 15, 2007 1:25 PM

You write:

"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."

With all due respect, how do you propose to accomplish that? Legally and practically? We can't force everyone who lives in DC to send their kids to DCPS. Nor can we create more racially and economically mixed school districts (think 1970's-era intra-district busing) by going beyond the boundaries of DC and reaching into the sovereign jurisdictions of MD and VA. I agree with your premise, but I fail to see how it could possibly be accomplished for the District of Columbia. If I am missing something, please do inform me.

Posted by: NMR | October 15, 2007 1:31 PM

There are some great books on this topic:

The Last Dropout-Stop The Epidemic by Bill Milliken. He heads Communities in Schools which is an awesome organization that is making a difference.

No Excuses-Closing the Racial Gap in Learning by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom

Complacency on this crisis is what has gotten us where we are. We were always told by the schools that they were doing their best and then NCLB came along and now we are seeing all the ugly statistics that the schools hid from us all these years.

Great job Marc on writing about education. Jay Matthews is too soft on these schools. Way to "kick the tires".

Posted by: educate yourselves | October 15, 2007 1:42 PM

"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."

Marc, what do you think it would take to do this? What would it take for you to send your daughters to public school in the District?

I ask in as non-snarky a manner as possible. But your opinion as DC resident and parent of private school attendees (if memory serves) could certainly provide some guidance if not anecdotal interest.

Posted by: Melissa | October 15, 2007 1:51 PM

Of those 58% that graduate with their class in DC schools, how many of them are ready to take on the rigors of college? My guess would be that it wouldn't be a very high percentage.

This is a deplorable situation.

Posted by: Cynic | October 15, 2007 3:21 PM

I write this as parent of an 11 year old who has been in both public and private schools in MD and Massachusetts. I have also served as a Trustee of a school and as a Trustee of an educational foundation. My mother taught in DCPS from 66-87.

Change of the magnitude needed takes time. I'd estimate about 4-6 years as the change is systemic: affecting governance, looking at what has worked from previous adminsitrations and school sytems both in D.C. & beyond, and a holistic approach to fostering a culture of success.

Leadership is key. Both from an institutional p.o.v and from a philosophical one. Everyone has to adopt some kind of leadership role. Parents, caregivers, and teachers share responsibility for the welfare and development of our children. But there must be a system leader who practices what she/he preaches in every relationship fostered while at the helm.

There cannot be a governmental attitude espoused of people coming "from the other side of the social divide" if this current team of educational workers is going to succeed in building the kind of relationships required to turn this problem around. Ironically, talking about "sides" articulates the separatist beliefs that created some of the greatest schools this country has ever seen between about 1930 and 1965. My parents and grand-parents attended DCPS during this period.

IN the early 70s we moved to the suburbs and my sister and I struggled with a different kind of problem set there...but that's another blog entry.

The question now, is how do we create systems of learning and development that will outlast any mayoral, committee, or council term?

For me, the answer is everyone with skills needs to find out how he can contribute to the problem solving efforts and get involved. I'm doing so through my work in museums and in partnership with multiple organizations.

Posted by: Mark | October 15, 2007 4:04 PM

Student IQ scores across all races have increased since the 1970s. I'm certain that if consistent records had been kept since the 1940s, an even more dramatic increase in intelligence could be claimed.

It follows that students on the left side of the bell curve today are arguably smarter than their counterparts of 30-50 years ago. Therefore, there is no reason why they cannot be educated to higher standards than yesterday's. This means those with weaker test scores are still quite capable of mastering the basic requirements of high school math and writing and, IMO, communicating at a competency level far higher than cynics allow.

I do not subscribe to the notion implicitly expressed by qaz1231 that IQ's are frozen, and therefore, student potential at all levels can't be enhanced by any school system, public or private as well as the home environment. All research in the last thirty years suggests IQs are fluid. The entire human potential movement, indeed, much Eastern religion and culture is based on the malleability of human intelligence. I consider it a major copout to suggest that those with lower test scores cannot achieve basic competency in math, reading, writing, and some standard of articulate spoken communication. To surrender to the hopelessness of achieving this is simply an indictment of the failed policies of school boards, administrators, teachers, and yes politicians, in all US urban school systems. This isn't the blame game; it's simply accountability, and it's crucial to the future global competitiveness of this country's work force.

First and foremost, I advocate the introduction of meditation, specifically TM into the curricula. Barring that, remove the stress of community violence and havoc (drugs, gangs, truancy) and the accompanying fear, so that children in the poorest neighborhoods can get to sleep on time, eat a decent diet (an contemporary issue that cuts across racial and economic lines), get adequate exercise, and not be ostracized for "acting white". Even without meditation, they will be more alert and, notwithstanding bona-fide cognitive disorders, perform better at school.

For thirty years, studies have documented that regular daily meditation, performed in or out of the school day, improves kids concentration and learning ability, as well as reducing negative social behaviors. And introduce this into the curricula _without_ whining about prayer-in-schools; make the clueless, unimaginative, entrenched educators/administrators meditate as well, and you have the foundation for real change. Those in the urban black community, specifically, but not limited to so-called religious leaders, who turn the introduction of strongly validated mental techniques like TM into a religious-versus-secular issue, appear to have a stake in the perpetual failure of their system. Yet these critics of meditation cannot and have not provided a solution to our urban school problems.

Practically speaking, you cannot radically change the racial distribution of the public schools. So simply make them better, and you'll get more Asians and whites to attend.

Older teachers and school administrators who haven't been trained to screen students for ADHD and related cognitive disorders (or more likely, don't have the patience to segregate these students into the learning tracks they need to succeed), have been entrenched in the failing system in all regional school systems for years, and should be ejected. I've personally met some of these idiots in both private and public institutions, and they are lacking both the compassion and commitment to either initiate or advocate the steps that would at least lift the weakest students up to their potential. Shameful.

Of course, not all students are "college material". But wages for vocational careers (technicians, mechanics, contractors) are now high enough in this country to bring such labor segments solidly into the middle class. Providing a good diversity of well-taught vocational education tracks in the public schools to supplement the college preparatory curriculum would motivate those who are weakest academically to stay in school and complete at least a high school degree. I don't need to remind all you underpaid, over-educated white-collar workers who can't afford a licensed plumber, that tradesmen wielding a wrench command higher wages than they do pounding the keyboard in front of a spreadsheet.

Posted by: Choppy | October 26, 2007 1:58 AM

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