Among the goals for American education set by President Bush in his State of the Union Message was a 90 percent high-school graduation rate by the year 2000. He was returning to a theme he and the governors had sounded in Charlottesville last September at the education summit, where their list of suggested goals included “the reduction of the dropout rate and the improvement of academic performance, especially among at-risk students.”
The drawback is that persuading youngsters to stay in school until graduation when they don’t care about getting an education will lower academic performance, not raise it. Troublemakers don’t learn much, but they interfere with the education of students willing to learn. A reformatory inmate whom I interviewed about school experiences illustrates the point.
Joe hadn’t dropped out; unlike most delinquents, he liked school. “What did you like about it?” I asked.
Joe told me about food fights in the lunchroom with his gang, about flirting with his girlfriends in the halls, about smoking in the boys’ room, about defying a young, inexperienced teacher to the point where she left teaching the following year.
“What about your classes?” I asked. “Did you like them?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I liked gym.” I persisted. Did he like English or math or anything else in the curriculum? “No,” he replied, smiling. “They weren’t in my curriculum.”
Joe didn’t drop out before his arrest for car theft because his high school made negligible academic demands upon him. He never did the homework. He often cut classes. He skipped school when he felt there was something more important to do. In short, he stayed in for social rather than for academic reasons.
One Joe in a high school is bearable. However, in high schools where the Joes constitute a big constituency, it is a public-policy blunder to make dropout prevention a priority.
Stay-ins are a worse problem than dropouts in inner-city schools because financially harried parents rarely encourage their children to devote the time and effort to schoolwork that learning requires. But suburban schools and schools in other countries also contain youngsters whom the Swedes call “school tired.” That Swedish expression assumes that youngsters should sometimes withdraw from school for a semester or more to rest--although they should be encouraged to return when they are ready to learn.
The American response to school-tired youngsters, on the other hand, is to do everything possible to prevent them from dropping out in the first place, including shifting the curriculum in the direction of entertainment. School administrators hope that students like Joe will find driver education, gym, or pottery making more interesting than academic courses.
Such courses do not usually make serious intellectual demands on students, not because it is impossible to use them to develop reading skills but because the schools are afraid that doing so would raise the dropout rate. The desire to keep students enrolled, now endorsed by President Bush, often leads to courses, and especially to electives, that have precious little educational value for anybody.
Apart from lowering the level of academic achievement, the presence of students like Joe in high schools increases the level of substance abuse, theft, and school violence. The Safe-Schools Study, a national survey of violence and vandalism in 642 public secondary schools throughout the United States, demonstrated that inner-city schools with above-average proportions of academically uninterested students were also schools with high rates of attacks against teachers and students.
Kids from low-income neighborhoods do not automatically make schools dangerous. Excellent and safe schools can be found in such neighborhoods.
Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., for example, had high academic standards between 1870 and 1955, although it enrolled black students whose tested aptitudes and economic circumstances were modest. During that period, Dunbar sent most of its graduates on to college, including the first black Cabinet member, a United States Senator, and distinguished judges. Dunbar’s secret was that children chose to attend it, attracted by its reputation and willing to conform to its stringent curricular requirements.
In 1955, Dunbar stopped recruiting students from all over the Washington area, and instead enrolled neighborhood students regardless of whether they wanted to attend. Dunbar soon developed the disciplinary and academic problems that might be expected in a school serving a low-income population.
A public high school cannot be excellent--or even safe--if it contains many students with no interest in learning what schools are designed to teach them. A high dropout rate is preferable to permitting such students to place teachers and fellow students in physical danger. Isn’t it better for everybody if some students drop out?
A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 1990 edition of Education Week as ‘Stay In’s’ Weaken School Performance