When it comes to teenagers dropping out of high school, I think it is worth opening with the good news.
For starters, the dropout rate has declined from 12 percent in 1990 to approximately 7 percent in 2012. The improvement has been fairly proportional between females and males, which also is positive.
But perhaps best of all is that the dropout rate for black students declined from 13 to 8 percent, and Hispanic students went from a 32 percent dropout rate to 13 percent over that same time period.
Now for the sobering reality.
We still have over 1.2 million students dropping out of high school each year. That equates to 7,000 students a day dropping out of high school to face a much more difficult world. A world wherein their income potential diminishes significantly ($200,000 less over their lifetime than high school graduates and $1 million less than college graduates).
The likelihood a person who drops out of high school will commit and be convicted of a crime also rises. According to statistics, 75 percent of all crime in the US is committed by people without a high school diploma. In one study conducted by mayors in the state of Arizona, which has some of the nations most disengaged students, high school drop outs were estimated to cost the state “$1.7 billion in crime-related expenses” over their lifetimes. The cost in welfare was significantly lower at $26 million.
Perhaps one of the most shocking statistics that I have come across is that while teenagers drop out of high schools all across the country, there are approximately 2,000 schools that graduate less than 60 percent of their young people. These 2,000 schools are responsible for 50 percent (that’s right, half!) of all students who leave school every year.
Imagine the psychological impact on a teenager knowing that four or five out of every ten people in his or her class has no realistic chance to go to college or have a high paying job? Imagine hanging out with your friends on the weekends and realizing that in the years ahead some of these people will likely end up getting arrested or spend part of their lives in prison? Most of us could not even begin to comprehend that kind of a world, let alone the negative influence such a reality would have on our daily lives and attention to school.
It should not be surprising then to see what some of the biggest factors are for students that do not complete high school.
1. School Is Irrelevant
Over 60 percent of students who drop out of high school say that school is not relevant to their lives. For them the curriculum has no bearing on how they see their future. Others cite the school or learning environment to be non-supportive. These kids are surrounded by poor achievement, crumbling buildings, crime and out-date text books. It’s completely natural to experience that environment and ask, “If my education is irrelevant to everyone else, why should I see it as relevant to me?”
2. Poverty And Life Challenges
Poverty, pregnancy, and other life challenges are other strong reasons.
Teens that have to get a job to support their family often think that they can complete high school at a later date, but rarely do. Girls who become pregnant also take time off from their education and struggle to go back and complete their education. The lack of support these young women receive often forces them to choose between working to provide basic necessities for their child or going to school. What would you do?
Another significant factor is drug and alcohol abuse, which is one of the top three reasons teenagers drop out of high school. It goes without saying that a person who is using drugs or addicted to drugs and alcohol is not in a state of mind to complete the necessary coursework and graduate high school.
Lastly, physical challenges (home-bound students) and mental illness also play a deciding factor in whether or not students drop out of school. Unfortunately, many kids have physical disabilities or special needs that prevent them from actively participating in a school. While some schools have the resources to mainstream students, others do not. What are these kids going to do?
And while physical disabilities are an obstacle, mental illness and emotional challenges are another significant barrier, because they often go unseen and untreated. Depression, attention challenges, learning disabilities, abuse and more can be missed by teachers, counselors and administrators, as well as parents.
3. Targeted By Bullies / Physical And Psychological Intimidation
The nature of bullying has changed from when many of us went to school. It’s no longer the big school-yard boy stealing lunch money. Now we have cyberbullying, physical and psychological intimidation, and social stigmatization exerted by others.
Bullying can happen anywhere and to anyone, and be caused by anyone. It is difficult to prevent, because targets for bullying can range from socially awkward students, to kids of different races, sexual orientation and other backgrounds. What’s more, it can happen in the classroom, hallways and cafeteria as well as in chat rooms and on social networks. There is no environment or person who is more prone than others. Worst of all, the psychological impact is often very devastating with students seeking to either drop out or transfer from school. For some students, being the victim of bullying forces them to even more extreme alternatives like suicide.
What can we do to turn this around?
The subject of drop-out prevention has been raised by many people and experts over the years. Here are some suggestions to help continue the progress that has been made:
- Schools and their surrounding communities need to make alternative education and drop-out prevention programs a priority. We all know that most teachers, school administrators and school boards are stretched. But a community that unites around a cause can make a huge difference. For example, mentoring students after school is one way community leaders can have an impact in connecting education to future success. Business leaders need to look beyond the taxes they pay and see how they can support mentoring teenagers both in the classroom and in the community. On the flip side, schools need to be more accommodating of local businesses – reaching out to bring in guest lecturers and adapting to ensure students can participate more in out-of-school mentoring programs.
- Schools need to implement a more proactive approach to dealing with school absences. If chronic tardiness is an issue, perhaps there is a problem at home? The problem can be minor, such as busy parents or a single parent. I know when I started off as a single parent and my daughter was in elementary school she often did not want to ride the bus. Yet, between her schedule and mine, it was a challenge to get her to school on-time. I called and asked the school if there were any resources available, such as a list of car pool groups. The school did not keep track of that. What a waste! By providing car-pooling resources and connecting parents to support networks, we can help ensure kids get to school more consistently and take some of the stress away from parents.
- Reaching kids when they are young to help them address behavioral challenges gives them a better chance to make corrections. This means the school needs to make better student observations, and communicate more with the child’s parents.
- Bilingual programs for parents to help bridge the communication gap. This is more than sending out a weekly newsletter in Spanish. My daughter briefly attended a school in which Hispanic students made up more than one-third of its student body. Often times, there were 3 or more kids in a class that did not speak English with proficiency. The school had trouble communicating with parents, because most of them did not speak English. The solution? We pooled resources and parents to string together a frequent number of parent-school nights just for Spanish-speaking parents and their kids. We needed a translator to assist, but the event helped break down communication barriers and integrated students and their families into the school. Integrated students are less likely to drop out.
- Greater school choice and domestic exchange programs to allow teenagers to get out of bad school systems. Though not a perfect solution, school systems need to experiment with opening slots to students from other school districts. The METCO program in Massachusettshas done this longer than anywhere else in the country. I also think we should look at national domestic exchange programs, which would work along the same lines of foreign exchange programs. While the schools will need to work to ensure student integration (this was a challenge with the METCO program), the benefits to teenagers who may be at risk of dropping out are significant.
- Online public education that can either supplement or replace existing public school education. When kids are faced with bullying and other negative influences that restrict their ability and/or desire to learn, the best approach is to get them moved into a safer environment that has fewer distractions. For example, K12 has a substantial curriculum, certified teachers and online support that create a powerful learning experience for kids of all ages. To make the K12 (and other online programs) more effective, we should be looking at creating education resource centers that can support small groups to large groups of students. In some communities, this can be accomplished by state or local governments leasing, or building/property owners donating, unused business offices. This would provide the space necessary and reduce short-term and long-term operating costs and maintain some flexibility. This then would give teens who are at-risk of dropping out an opportunity to advance their education.
How can we prevent teenagers from dropping out of high school?
While we do have a great many societal challenges, education continues to rank as a lower priority for most Americans. In fact, since 2008, 29 states have cut per-pupil spending and shifted the financial burdens to cash-strapped localities. The federal government also has cut spending by 10 percent on programs for low-income families—at a time when our government is collecting record levels of tax revenue and seems to have no problem running budget deficits in the hundreds of billions. While government spending is not necessarily an indicator of bad educational policy (eliminating wasteful spending or ineffective programs is important and something I readily support), reducing the resources for states and localities to reach students with alternatives is not going to help improve educational outcomes and continue to reduce drop-out rates.
As we move forward, companies like K12, Khan Academy and others do provide the infrastructure, courses and in some cases—certified teachers necessary to connect with many of these kids who are at-risk of dropping out.
However, if we want to be serious about education reform and dramatically reducing the number of teenagers who drop out of school, we need to be as open-minded as possible about the tools, solutions and services we provide to our teachers and our young people.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to be as active as possible and produce programs and services that at-risk teens can clearly and easily see and use. The more tangible interest we take in our young people, the better they will respond.
[This post originally appeared in Learning Liftoff on February 4, 2015]