High School Dropout Rates Remain Problematic
> 5/11/2007 3:15:09 PM

In announcing the release of a new online database that will allow students and parents to peruse the high school graduation rates for districts across the country, First Lady Laura Bush and a group of education officials indirectly revealed the extent of our nation's dropout epidemic: the long-sagging numbers are not improving. This information should surprise no one, but most of the public, when surveyed, believed that 90% of our high schoolers finish their studies. That number, according to the database, is actually below 70%, with fewer than two in three graduating on time.

Quick to defend the No Child Left Behind program, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings shifted blame onto a small number of mostly urban "dropout factories" whose "50-50" numbers drag the national average down. While her statement is extreme, socioeconomic factors do clearly play the largest role in this equation, as those from low-income families are nearly four times as likely to drop out, and the same individuals are then twice as likely as graduates in the general public to be unemployed for long periods. Of course, those who do work earn lower wages and reduced benefits. The chances of success for a student who drops out of high school are depressingly slim. Repeated education stories have also reminded us that Black and Hispanic children, particularly males, are much more likely to drop out.

But graduation rates are sometimes difficult to measure, and consensus on the statistics is not universal. Some in education and policy analysis claim that the percentage of students who finish high school is actually much greater than other fatalistic, politically motivated reports claim (and that it is slowly improving). In order to discredit the public school system, they argue, private education and school voucher advocates either directly alter numbers or choose the least flattering stats to make their points. This accusation is hardly unique, but its oversimplified, as there is very little agreement on specific numbers. While some place the overall rate at 70% or less, with slightly more than 50% of minorities graduating, other, more generous estimates place the numbers closer to 83% and 75%, respectively. Politics may have a role to play in the distance between these numbers, but conflicting accounts reinforce the fact that the statistics are imprecise, a problem the new database (optimistically) aims to eliminate. On a positive note, there's no doubt that graduation rates did not fall from the 1960's to the 1990's and that the racial gap continues to grow more narrow (albeit very slowly).

How can we address this problem? It is a question that rightfully occupies the time and energy of many in the education field, but specifics are not forthcoming. Some reasonably advocate early interventions on behalf of struggling students as they enter high school. The current administration also plans to incorporate these new methods of measuring nationwide graduation rates into the No Child Left Behind Act by 2012. This plan will undoubtedly place greater pressure on low-performance schools to bring their numbers up in whatever way they can. Whether that is a good thing may depend on one's political persuasion.

Luckily, our nation's long-suffering student body has none other than MTV on their side: the youth-oriented channel and pop culture barometer has produced a documentary/reality show looking to highlight the epidemic by following three students who've gone astray in their journey through the American school system. Whatever we have to do to focus more of the public's attention on our ultimate goal: near-universal high school graduation rates. Once that end has been reached, we can all argue about how we got there.

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