Student Well-Being Opinion

Graduating or Dropping Out: What’s the Difference?

By David Ginsburg — May 11, 2012 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The dropout rate at Chicago’s Manley High School was over 60% when I taught there, and even higher for males. Yet Rodney Wilson (not his real name) made it to graduation, and his family and friends roared as he received his diploma. No one was louder or prouder than Rodney’s girlfriend, Nicole (not her real name), who would graduate from Manley the following year.

I asked Nicole early in her senior year how Rodney was doing. “He’s alright,” Nicole said, but her face said otherwise. “Is he in school?” I asked. “Not yet,” Nicole replied. “He applied to Malcolm X (one of the City Colleges of Chicago) and is planning to go there next year.”

“Sounds good. Is he working now?” I replied. “You might say that,” Nicole said, telling me everything I needed to know. Rodney’s “job” wasn’t in an office or restaurant or factory. High school graduate Rodney was doing the same thing he would have been doing had he been high school dropout Rodney: selling drugs on the street corner.

Wish I could say Rodney’s story was an isolated case, but a high school diploma is a ticket to nowhere for many urban kids. Kids who get into college but can’t stay in. Kids who get jobs but can’t hold onto them. Kids who, like Rodney, learn the hard way that graduating isn’t all that different from dropping out.

So, how could students do what they need to do to graduate high school, but fall apart afterward? Simple, what they need to do to graduate high school is nothing like what they’ll need to do in college or the workplace. In fact, for many urban youth, K-12 success is a set-up for post-secondary failure.

And a big reason for this, as I’ve written before, is that urban schools often teach students (or reinforce in them) self-defeating behavior. Martin Haberman also wrote about this in his article, Unemployment Training: The Ideology of Non-Work Learned in Urban Schools:

Urban youth are not simply ill prepared for work but systematically and carefully trained to be quitters, failures, and the discouraged workers who no longer even seek employment... The dropout problem among urban youth--as catastrophic as it is--is less detrimental than this active training for unemployment. We need be more concerned for "successful" youth who graduate since it is they who have been most seriously infected. They have been exposed longest, practiced the anti-work behaviors for the longest period, and been rewarded most. In effect, the urban schools create a pool of youth much larger than the number of dropouts who we have labeled as "successful" but who have been more carefully schooled for failure.

Haberman went on to describe the beliefs and behaviors that make up the ideology of non-work. It’s a provocative piece, which I ask urban educators to read and discuss when I help them take ownership of students’ failures rather than blame poverty, parents, policies, or other outside factors. Read Haberman’s article if you work with urban youth, and reflect on what you may be doing to set them up for post-secondary failure--just as I was doing until I realized it and made some of the changes I’ve shared on this blog (Non-Academic Skills category).

Another graduation season is here, and it should be a time for celebration. But for me it’s a reminder of kids like Rodney--who never did enroll at Malcolm X--and Nicole whose pride in Rodney at graduation was replaced by shame two months later. I’ve had the privilege of working with several urban schools whose graduates are prepared for college and work. But you won’t see me celebrating until that’s the case with all urban schools.

Image by Jiris, provided by Dreamstime license

Join my mailing list for announcements about webinars and the work I do to improve teaching and learning.

The opinions expressed in Coach G’s Teaching Tips are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion Educators, Be Future-Ready, But Don’t Ignore the Present
Being ready for what lies ahead is important, but we also need to gain a better understanding of the here and now.
5 min read
shutterstock 226918177
Student Well-Being Opinion How to Prioritize Student Well-Being This Year
Use the Student Thriving Index to find out where your kids stand. Because you cannot manage what you cannot measure.
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Student Well-Being Spotlight Spotlight on Supporting Teachers & Students
In this Spotlight, evaluate your district and what supports your schools offer, assess attendance policies to avoid burnout, and more
Student Well-Being What the Research Says Child Hospitalizations Spike Under Delta, Particularly in Low-Vaccination States
Nationwide, the number of children and teens hospitalized due to COVID-19 has ballooned nearly tenfold since midsummer, new CDC data show.
2 min read
hopital stethescope 1222194507
Aleksandr Titov/iStock/Getty