Dropouts need more than a silver-bullet sound bite to help them succeed.
President Obama took on the dropout crisis in his 2012 State of the Union address, calling on "every state to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18."
It's a bold mandate, and to some extent, a logical one—the 25 percent of American high schoolers who don't earn high school diplomas have the nation's highest unemployment rates and cost the economy billions of dollars through social services and lost tax revenue. Since most jobs of the future will require some form of postsecondary education—either trade school or a four-year degree—the prospects for dropouts aren't looking up. But as appealing as the get-tough approach may sound, more rules are not the solution.
The problem is that requirements don't address the root problems that cause students to leave school in the first place. Students who drop out are often dealing with serious personal issues, including homelessness, abuse, and teen pregnancy. In fact, research shows that schools can identify students likely to drop out as early as sixth grade, because they already have problems with attendance and behavior and are performing below grade level in reading and math. Legally requiring that those kids stay in school longer won't help with any of those issues, and we know it doesn't work. Louisiana already requires students to stay in school until they turn 18 and they have a 59.6 percent dropout rate, the sixth worst in the nation.
So what does work? Leading education reformers like Harvard's Futures of School Reform group say it's impossible for schools to boost graduation rates without tackling poverty-related non-school issues—like homelessness—that cause students to drop out. And, last year at a Los Angeles forum on alternative education, creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson shot down the idea that students are rebelling against education generally when they drop out. "For any student, the classroom they sit in is the education system," he said,"and that's what they're dropping out of."
Robinson noted that dropouts often thrive in alternative schools because they take a completely different approach from test-driven mainstream classrooms. The small learning communities, personalized instruction, low student-to-teacher ratios, and support for pregnant or parenting students common in alternative programs have strong track records of getting dropouts re-engaged in their education.
Creating safety nets for students and taking an individualized, creative approach to learning has also been successful in Finland's world-renowned education system, which has one of the lowest dropout rates in the world. America can follow Finland's lead, but only if our teachers are able to become leaders at their schools, build relationships with students, and make their classrooms engaging hubs of authentic learning that make students want to show up.
And, of course, turning schools into welcoming, supportive atmospheres requires an end to the gutting of education budgets. With adequate financial resources, schools would be able to bring back smaller class sizes, art, music, and sports, plus increase the number of guidance counselors and provide greater access to career and technical courses.
But those solutions are all too complicated to propose as a silver bullet in a State of the Union address, so the president—like many other politicians before him—resorted to proposing rules instead of designing real fixes. Let's hope one of these days someone has the courage to tackle the real issues that cause America's dropout crisis.