The dropout crisis: It starts at birth

Teachers know this, but our knowledge is not reaching the deciders.

Male dropouts are more than three times more likely to get locked up than their counterparts who finish high school. A quarter of all African American males that don’t finish high school will find themselves behind bars. Unemployment rates for young people are over 20 percent higher for dropouts than for high school graduates. It costs our society a lot— economically and psychologically— more to lock somebody up than to educate him.

This dropout crisis is often mislabeled as a “high school dropout crisis.” Yes, the last years of attending school are the ninth- through twelfth-grades. However, the ones who leave are mentally gone long before freshman year.

Sam Dillon’s recent New York Times articlepresents stark statistics of the extreme consequences that follow not getting a high school degree:

Some juicy tidbits:

The [Northeastern University] report puts the collective cost to the nation over the working life of each high school dropout at $292,000. Mr. Sum said that figure took into account lost tax revenues, since dropouts earn less and therefore pay less in taxes than high school graduates. It also includes the costs of providing food stamps and other aid to dropouts and of incarcerating those who turn to crime.

54 percent of dropouts ages 16 to 24 were jobless, compared with 32 percent for high school graduates of the same age, and 13 percent for those with a college degree.

Again, the statistics were worse for young African-American dropouts, whose unemployment rate last year was 69 percent, compared with 54 percent for whites and 47 percent for Hispanics.

Scary stuff. Fortunately, it’s not an impossible mystery to figure out why many students don’t finish school. Kids leave when they don’t have a good reason to stay. Good reasons to stay include:

  • Feeling successful in school

(So many students with low skills feel like failures and are perpetually at their frustration level. Sitting through classes where they’re lost is torturous.)

  • Connecting with positive role models

(Many adults who work in schools do heroic work here, but I bet every one of them wishes class sizes were smaller so that crucial one-on-one and small-group opportunities will be more available.)

  • Understanding where it’s all heading

(Lots of students who drop out see no road map to college or point of reference for how to be happy and successful on that path. Limited exposure to the world beyond their immediate reality is crippling in this regard.)

Stemming the dropout crisis involves investing in all of these areas for preschool and elementary school students. That’s when the race starts, and that’s where the resources are most needed.