Last night in the State of the Union address, President Obama directly addressed the dropout crisis:

We also know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. So tonight, I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.

Forcing students who want out to stick around will have limited returns. Reversing the dropout crisis, a crucial goal, would take an extraordinarily comprehensive effort to undo the systemic elements to facilitate students’ decisions to walk away from school. Many young people (7,000 per day; 30% of all students) may wait until high school to disappear physically, but the damage that ultimately manifests in dropping out has likely been done much earlier in their lives.

Russell W. Rumberger has answers. The University of California professor has written Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It, published last year by Harvard University Press. In theWashington Post, Jay Mathews called it a “masterpiece” and summarized Rumberger’s key takeaways on how to reverse the dropout crisis:

1. Redefine high school success. The measure of a school should not be just mastery of reading, writing and math, but what are called noncognitive skills, such as motivation, perseverance, risk aversion, self-esteem and self-control. This would help both potential dropouts and kids going to college who need work on their social skills.

2. Change the dropout accounting system so schools aren’t rewarded for transferring problem kids. Even students who spend only a semester in the ninth grade before transferring to another school should be counted when the original school calculates how many ninth-graders completed high school four years later. Otherwise, schools will have an incentive to send students most likely to drop out to other schools rather than try to help them.

3. Stop trying to improve schools by forcing them to change their practices over the short term. Instead, help them build their capacity to improve, with more money and staff, over the long term.

4. Work harder to desegregate schools. Rumberger cites a study that found two-thirds of high schools with more than 90 percent minority enrollment had fewer than 60 percent of their students remain in school from ninth to 12th grade. “In short,” he writes, “it matters with whom one goes to school.”

5. Strengthen families and communities. Compared with other developed countries, the United States has one of the highest rates of children living in poverty. Those are the kids most susceptible to dropping out. Anything that improves the health and job security of school neighborhoods improves graduation rates. More early children education and preschool are also useful.

Sign me up as a supporter. The Obama Adminstration should be all over this!

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