It seems fitting for Oprah Winfrey, with her recent showcasing of the Stand Up public-engagement campaign, to become the latest (and certainly the most famous) spokesperson for doing something now to fix our high schools, and particularly to stem the dropout rate among low-income and minority students. (“Campaign Seeks Buy-In for High School Reforms,” April 19, 2006.) After all, she has an inspiring personal story of redemption through effort and education, and she champions individual reinvention and multiple makeovers. Perhaps if Oprah were to devote another installment of her popular TV show to the state of American education, she could focus on a related issue: the failure of our society to provide a second chance for the millions of young people who have given up on their high schools, but not on their education.
This is the topic of a new report from Jobs for the Future, the Boston-based nonprofit organization where we work, that challenges many of the commonly held beliefs about dropouts and educational persistence. Based on an analysis of data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, the report finds that most dropouts are remarkably persistent in their drive to complete their education, but that their persistence far too often goes unrewarded. This analysis shifts the emphasis from who drops out and why they do, to how and why current educational options fail to effectively recapture young people who drop out and put them back on track to earn secondary and postsecondary credentials. The answers to those questions are central to changing the life circumstances of the many young people who exit the education pipeline and struggle in today’s economy.
Too often, both public perception and public policy seem based on the idea that dropping out is confined to a small—and particularly unmotivated—group of young people. A related assumption, although rarely voiced, is that dropping out is primarily a problem of disaffected black and Hispanic central-city youths who have rejected mainstream values, including the importance of education. Such views have reinforced a third widespread misconception, that there is little anyone can do to get most young people who leave school back on track—earning a high school diploma and advancing to higher education.
Our analysis paints a different picture of the dropout problem facing the nation. Contrary to the popular image of dropouts as unmotivated kids who do not value the importance of education, we found that most dropouts, right at 60 percent, eventually earn a high school credential, in most cases through the General Educational Development, or GED, program. Nearly half of that group goes on to enroll in a two- or four-year college. In other words, they absorb the fact that to get a foothold in an increasingly competitive job market, they need higher-level skills and credentials. Yet despite their persistence, only 10 percent of those who gain high school credentials and enroll in postsecondary institutions earn a degree.
Further, data analysis shows that although dropping out is epidemic in low-income communities, it is not just a problem of the poor. Middle- and upper-class communities are not immune; the problem is more pervasive than many think. Data show that 10 percent of middle- and upper-income youths drop out. That compares with 40 percent of those in the lower-income level.
A related point is that, rather than race, socioeconomic status, which is based on parents’ income and education, is the key indicator for dropping out. Black and Hispanic youths are not more likely to drop out than white peers of similar family income and education. But black and Hispanic youths are overrepresented in the lowest income groups, and thus the problem affects their communities more.
All of this, of course, has implications for policy. First, making good on the promise of a second chance requires that we do a much better job of counting and accounting for what happens to dropouts. States have been focusing on higher academic standards for the past decade, which is good and necessary. But we need an equal accountability focus on higher graduation rates. Last year, all 50 governors took a critical first step by signing the Graduation Counts compact initiated by the National Governors Association, which commits them to investing in good data and in activities that will move kids to higher standards without losing them along the way.
Making good on the promise of a second chance requires that we do a much better job of counting and accounting for what happens to dropouts.
Second, there is a need for more pathways that help dropouts pursue an education. We cannot continue to base policy on the erroneous belief that all students will proceed through a traditional four years of high school, followed directly by two to four years of college. Instead, communities and states need to be strategic in the way they carry out high school reform—especially in low-income central cities with high concentrations of dropouts. Such activity includes the creation of new school options and a more diverse portfolio of choices and pathways for young people, all of which lead to postsecondary credentials. A small group of front-runner cities, such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Portland, Ore., are deeply involved in developing policies and programs that make good on the promise of a second chance.
Third, dropout-recovery programs need to catch up with what young people seem to understand: It’s not enough just to get a GED or an entry-level job. In order for the promise to be meaningful, recovery programs have to include on-ramps to further education for those whose age, skills, number of high school credits, and life circumstances would otherwise create barriers for them.
The dropout issue is complex, and will not easily be “solved.” But by building on the educational persistence of young people, and on growing local and state attention to high school reform, it should be possible to make real progress on this issue.
Maybe at the end of Oprah’s next show on American education, she will look into the camera and ask local, state, and national policymakers to make good on the promise of a second chance for America’s youths.
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Making Good on a Promise