Is mandating 18 as the dropout age the answer?

26 Jan

History is a race between education and catastrophe.

H. G. Wells

This world is in a period of dislocation and upheaval as great as the period of dislocation which ushered in the “industrial revolution.” The phrase “new, new thing” comes from a book by Michael Lewis about innovation in Silicon Valley. This historical period is between “new, new things” as the economy hopes that some new innovator will harness “green technology” and make it commercially viable as the economy needs the jump that only a “new, new thing” will give it. Peter S. Goodman has a fascinating article in the New York Times, Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without Jobs Unless, children are given a meaningful education which provides them with basic skills to adapt to a changing environment, the education system is producing a permanent underclass which will not be able to participate in the next “new, new thing.” The U.S. Department of Education has issued the following Press Release which describes the new method for calculating graduation rates.

Henry M. Levin and Cecilia E. Rouse opine in their New York Times opinion piece, The True Cost of High School Dropouts:

In 1970, the United States had the world’s highest rate of high school and college graduation. Today, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’ve slipped to No. 21 in high school completion and No. 15 in college completion, as other countries surpassed us in the quality of their primary and secondary education.

Only 7 of 10 ninth graders today will get high school diplomas. A decade after the No Child Left Behind law mandated efforts to reduce the racial gap, about 80 percent of white and Asian students graduate from high school, compared with only 55 percent of blacks and Hispanics.

Like President Obama, many reformers focus their dropout prevention efforts on high schoolers; replacing large high schools with smaller learning communities where poor students can get individualized instruction from dedicated teachers has been shown to be effective. Rigorous evidence gathered over decades suggests that some of the most promising approaches need to start even earlier: preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, who are fed and taught in small groups, followed up with home visits by teachers and with group meetings of parents; reducing class size in the early grades; and increasing teacher salaries from kindergarten through 12th grade….

If we could reduce the current number of dropouts by just half, we would yield almost 700,000 new graduates a year, and it would more than pay for itself. Studies show that the typical high school graduate will obtain higher employment and earnings — an astonishing 50 percent to 100 percent increase in lifetime income — and will be less likely to draw on public money for health care and welfare and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system. Further, because of the increased income, the typical graduate will contribute more in tax revenues over his lifetime than if he’d dropped out.

When the costs of investment to produce a new graduate are taken into account, there is a return of $1.45 to $3.55 for every dollar of investment, depending upon the educational intervention strategy. Under this estimate, each new graduate confers a net benefit to taxpayers of about $127,000 over the graduate’s lifetime. This is a benefit to the public of nearly $90 billion for each year of success in reducing the number of high school dropouts by 700,000 — or something close to $1 trillion after 11 years. That’s real money — and a reason both liberals and conservatives should rally behind dropout prevention as an element of economic recovery, leaving aside the ethical dimensions of educating our young people….

Proven educational strategies to increase high school completion, like high-quality preschool, provide returns to the taxpayer that are as much as three and a half times their cost. Investing our public dollars wisely to reduce the number of high school dropouts must be a central part of any strategy to raise long-run economic growth, reduce inequality and return fiscal health to our federal, state and local governments.

In order to compete internationally, the U.S. must have an educated workforce and high school is the first step for college and additional vocational training.

The Alliance for Excellent Education has information about Graduation Rates at their site:

Yet every year, approximately 1.3 million students—that’s over 7,000 every school day—do not graduate from high school on time. Nationwide, only 69 percent of students earn their high school diplomas. Among minority students, only 56 percent of Hispanic, 54 percent of African American, and 51 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students in the U.S. graduate with a regular diploma, compared to 77 percent of white students and 81 percent of Asian Americans.

While there is no single reason that students drop out, difficult transitions to high school, a deficiency in basic skills (such as the ability to read and write at grade level or near it) or a lack of engagement serve as prominent barriers to graduation. Over one third of all dropouts are lost in ninth grade. The six million secondary students who comprise the lowest 25 percent of achievement are twenty times more likely to drop out of high school than students in the top-performing quartile. “Early-warning systems” or “on-track” indicators have allowed researchers and educators to, increasingly, identify some potential dropouts and get them back on track to educational success.

Unfortunately, many students are not given the extra support they need to successfully make the transition to high school. While some students fall through the cracks in otherwise successful schools, more than half of the nation’s dropouts are unlucky enough to attend one of the nation’s 2,000 lowest-performing high schools. In these schools, less than 60 percent of freshmen make it to their senior year three years later. These schools are the chronically low-performing, under-resourced schools where the freshman class shrinks by 40 percent or more by the time the students reach their senior year.

High school dropouts face a lifetime of reduced earnings and a diminished quality of life. For example, a high school dropout’s lifetime earnings are, on average, about $260,000 less than a high school graduate’s. Local communities, states, and the American economy suffer from the dropout crisis as well – from lost wages, taxes, and productivity to higher costs for health care, welfare, and crime, as shown in the potential economic impacts nationally and by state.

Census projections show that the minority populations with the lowest graduation rates are poised to become half of the U.S. population by 2050. According to Demography as Destiny: How America Can Build a Better Future, an Alliance issue brief, if minority students continue to receive inferior educations and leave high school without diplomas and adequate preparation for the twenty-first-century economy, the nation’s graduation rate and economic strength will both decrease further.

To learn more, access the Alliance’s publications on high school graduation and dropout rates.

The question that educators, politicians, and business leaders are asking is how to decrease the dropout rates.

Abby Rapoport writes in The American Prospect article, Does Changing the Dropout Age Matter?

Right now, in most states students must attend school until they are 16 or 17. However, even before last night’s speech, several states were considering legislation to raise the dropout age, like Wyoming and Kentucky. Many states—19 back in 2009—already had raised the age for compulsory attendance to 18. With so many states doing it, and the president pushing the policy, presumably it works, right?

Well, not exactly. In 2009, the Rennie Center in Massachusetts came out with a report investigating the impact of the policy. Their conclusion? Focus on other policies first.

The comprehensive report showed a lack of evidence that changing the age for compulsory school attendance had a major impact on the dropout rate. Based on 2004-05 data, it showed that of the ten states with the highest graduation rates, only three had a dropout age of 18. Over at Kentucky’s Bluegrass Institute, Richard Innes updated the Rennie Center report with 2008-09 dropout data, and found that while some states with a dropout age of 18 have have better graduation rates than the national average, others, like Utah, California and Nebraska, do not. 

Compulsory attendance “is not a silver bullet,” explains Chad d’Entremont, the Rennie Center’s executive director. Instead, he argued that raising the dropout age “needs to be accompanied by a host of supports that address the root causes.” d’Entremont pointed to options like night classes for students who felt a need to work while in school and a bigger emphasis on goal-setting and counseling so that alienated students had at least on adult in the school they could turn to.

To really lower the dropout rate, d’Entremont argued for early childhood care, like more pre-k and full-day kindergarten, and a better way to monitor which kids are likely to be at high-risk of dropping out—and provide resources in elementary and middle school. “We need to focus more on prevention as opposed to intervention,” he said, explaining that “changes that occur at the very tail end of a student’s career” are least likely to bring change.

The trouble, of course, many of those elements, like better guidance counselors, are hard to implement at a policy level. The federal and even state governments cannot dictate how schools are run day-to-day. And with widespread cuts to education, many schools are scrambling to get by, rather than pushing to expand professional development for their staff and outreach to parents. But even those schools and districts that are innovating right now are doing so on their own—it’s hard to legislate on-the-ground work.

Passing a law is not going to be effective, but intervention for at-risk students and early childhood education are proven strategies. Those strategies cost money. The question is whether the political elite are paying lip service to dropout prevention while being penny wise and pound foolish. Rapoport is correct that raising the age to dropout must be accompanied by proven education strategies.


School Dropout Rates Add To Fiscal Burden


2 Responses to “Is mandating 18 as the dropout age the answer?”


  1. Report: Some good news about high school graduation rates « drwilda - June 30, 2012

    […] In order to compete internationally, the U.S. must have an educated workforce and high school is the first step for college and additional vocational training.                                               […]

  2. Studies: Lack of support and early parenthood cause kids to dropout « drwilda - November 19, 2012

    […] Passing a law is not going to be effective, but intervention for at-risk students and early childhood education are proven strategies. Those strategies cost money. The question is whether the political elite are paying lip service to dropout prevention while being penny wise and pound foolish. Rapoport is correct that raising the age to dropout must be accompanied by proven education strategies. […]

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