Dropouts a Drain on Economy; Likely 'Unemployed, in Prison and Living in Poverty'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

Dropouts a Drain on Economy; Likely 'Unemployed, in Prison and Living in Poverty'


Byline: George Archibald, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

About 1.3 million students nationwide drop out of school between eighth and 12th grades each year. They're frustrated because they can't read well enough to keep up, bored by their courses and teachers or just unmotivated to stay in school.

The implications for the nation's economic vitality are "far-reaching and devastating," according to a Harvard University report. "High school dropouts are far more likely to be unemployed, in prison and living in poverty."

The same verdict is reached in other recent studies by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, N.J., and the Manhattan Institute of New York City.

"This is a story of losing ground," researcher Paul E. Barton says in the ETS report.

Researcher Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute, who has studied the dropout issue for several decades, says schools peaked nationally in 1969 with a 77 percent graduation rate and have slipped each year for the past 30 years.

"The trend is the same from year to year," Mr. Greene says.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says the Manhattan Institute study also found that most students who do receive high school diplomas are unprepared to do college-level work.

"The report shows that two-thirds of our nation's students leave high school unprepared to even apply to a four-year college. That is a travesty," Mrs. Spellings says.

At least half of prison inmates throughout the country are high school dropouts, Mr. Greene notes.

In the District, the number of dropouts grew 12 percentage points from 1990 to 2000, with fewer than half of ninth-graders making it to graduation.

Maryland managed to increase its graduation rate by 3.5 percentage points during those 10 years, with 80 percent of students graduating in 2000. In Virginia, about 71 percent graduated annually in the past decade.

The Harvard Civil Rights Project study, led by Gary Orfield, shows a graduation rate of 50 percent for blacks and 53 percent for Hispanics, compared with 75 percent for whites.

The report, titled "Losing Our Future," concludes: "The extremely low graduation rates of black, Latino and Native American males cry out for immediate action informed by research."

Ross Wiener, policy director for the Education Trust in the District, says the reliability of the Manhattan and Harvard studies "is bolstered by how similar their numbers are."

One criticism of the Manhattan Institute report is that it did not look separately at the dropout rate of boys and girls.

"This is, in my judgment, a very important piece of the problem to get a handle on. I suspect the vast majority [of dropouts] are boys," says Sandra Stotsky of Northeastern University, formerly Massachusetts' senior associate commissioner of education for standards, curriculum and teacher preparation.

In fact, the dropout rate for minority boys is more than 50 percent in many large urban areas, according to the Harvard report.

"I agree that deficiency in reading and arithmetic are major problems," Mrs. Stotsky says. "Kids, mainly boys, are flooding into high school with poor skills. ...

"Giving kids who can't read, write or do math a much more rigorous [high school] curriculum is unlikely to make them stay in school. ... A much harder curriculum doesn't improve poor reading skills and may cause them to drop out faster."

Blame middle schools?

Cheri Pierson Yecke, a former middle-school teacher, wrote a book about mediocrity in middle schools called "The War Against Excellence." In it, she points to reduced school-dropout rates in Singapore in the 1980s and '90s when that country implemented higher academic standards and exit exams at each grade level.

Mrs. Yecke, who also served as state education chief in Virginia and Minnesota, writes that anti-testing critics had warned, incorrectly, that more rigorous academic standards and courses would produce massive dropout rates among poor students who wouldn't be able to keep up. …

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