the high school dropout problem

I’m at National Airport, on my way to Georgia to speak about the Civic Mission of Schools. I was just on Capitol Hill for an American Youth Policy Forum on high school dropouts. Paul E. Barton of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) gave a very useful presentation. Some highlights:

  • Even as the job market has become more competitive and demanding, the rate of finishing high school has fallen. The percentage of 17-year-olds who graduated rose steadily until 1969 (when it reached 77%), but then fell steadily to about 69%.
  • Although estimates vary, all recent studies find that the real high school graduation rate is between 66% and 71%.
  • Among African American and Latino students, only about half are graduating. For kids who grow up in lower-income families (bottom quartile), only about 33% graduate from high school; so high school graduation is a major symptom of how our society reproduces inequality from generation to generation.
  • It’s worse to drop out today than it was a generation ago. Males without high school diplomas earned about one-third less money in the late 1990s than in the 1970s, adjusting for inflation. Females without high school diplomas earn slightly less today than in 1971, again adjusting for inflation.
  • Some programs really work to increase graduation rates among at-risk kids. The most rigorous evaluation concerned the Quantum Opportunities Program, which randomly selected students to participate and compared their progress to a control group. In other words, it was a true experiment. For about $2,500/year over four years, QOP was able to cut the dropout rate to 23%, compared to 50% for the control group. (Thus its real effect was to cut a high dropout rate in half.) QOP’s approach included academic programs that were individally paced for each student; mandatory community service; enrichment programs; and pay for each hour of participation.
  • In real terms, the federal government has cut its funding for “second-chance” programs by about four fifths since 1971. “Second chance” programs provide training and education for drop-outs. Some have been rigorously evaluated and show powerful effects for youth who choose to enroll.
  • Growing numbers of 16-year-olds are taking the GED instead of finishing high school. It’s unclear why: they may be “pushed out” (encouraged to leave school so that they won’t count in dropout statistics or cause disciplinary problems), or they may be “drawn out” by the prospect of a high-school equivalency degree without all those boring and demeaning courses and dangerous school hallways. Obviously, it would be best to make high schools more rewarding for more kids. However, I wonder whether it would help to create a tougher, more highly valued exam as alternative to the GED; this could truly substitute for a high school diploma. Then kids who were ready for work or college at 16 or 17 could finish early and have decent prospects.