In 1983, “A Nation at Risk” focused political decisionmakers on the necessity of reframing public education into an accountability model designed to provide minimum standards of achievement. By 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act ensured that all states receiving federal funds would meet requirements for standardized testing, teacher qualifications, and funding priorities. Most recently, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 to continue accountability efforts while empowering states with greater flexibility. And while educational improvement has had mixed results, many students have not enjoyed any level of success, or even remained in school. For these overlooked students to succeed, we must now consider reforms to the basic structure of secondary education.
There have been many initiatives to improve student success, including providing for highly qualified teachers, improving curriculum development, implementing best instructional practices, relying on data-driven decisions in schools, and many more. But they all have one characteristic in common: They seek to implement reforms that will introduce positive change to the system without fundamentally redesigning it to meet the needs of all students. Higher standards are a double-edged sword, and as academic rigor increases, more and more students will find themselves unable to meet the new, and continually changing, requirements. The obvious, and unavoidable, result under the present system is an unacceptably high number of high school dropouts.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the high school dropout rate is 7 percent as of 2013. The number of Hispanic students dropping out (12 percent) is significantly higher than that of both non-Hispanic white students (5 percent) and African-American students (7 percent). The true dropout numbers may well be higher, as a number of intervening factors—student mobility, incentives for local schools to underreport dropouts, challenges in tracking transfer students, poor record-keeping and classification discrepancies, and unmonitored home schooling—make accurate data difficult to determine. Clearly, however, an intolerably high number of students are failing to complete high school.
Many attempts have been made to broaden the appeal of school programs to the less academically inclined students, such as career and technical education and vocational programs. But these programs operate within the parameters of the traditional high school, and students will be required to pass state-mandated standardized tests, in one form or another, to graduate. Inevitably, we are left with an unsustainable dropout rate for our increasingly competitive global economy.
A fundamental redesign of secondary education that will maintain the benefits of the school improvement movement, while accommodating the needs of all students, is warranted. Consider the following proposal:
Graduation from high school should be reset from the 12th grade to the 10th grade. Until completing the 10th grade, students would continue to be required to meet state accountability standards and course requirements.
Two other conditions would motivate students to meet graduation requirements: First, states would pass laws that make obtaining a driver’s license before the age of 18 conditional upon graduating from the 10th grade. Second, students who dropped out before completing the 10th grade would be denied a permit to work until they reached 18. Such requirements would instill students with a significant incentive to succeed in school. Again, state laws would be required to institute these changes.
We have to demand that our priorities be in the right place. It is simply no longer acceptable to allow students to drop out of school without immediate consequences. In this new educational arrangement, students would realize, in a concrete way, that they have much to lose by dropping out and much to gain by completing their basic 10th grade education. It is not unreasonable to project that this reform might well eliminate the high number of students currently dropping out before even completing the sophomore year in high school.
It is simply no longer acceptable to allow students to drop out of school without immediate consequences.
Even if almost all students completed the 10th grade requirements, new educational opportunities would be necessary to prepare students for their futures, as well as for the long-term needs of the country. Another critical component of this proposal would be to require two additional years of education beyond the 10th grade graduation from regular schools.
However, it is at this point that a diversified learning program should be offered to students to provide opportunities other than traditionally structured high school programs. The current approach to the final two years of high school education has simply not worked well for many low-achieving students who have remained in the system. Many of these students, who perform poorly on standardized tests, find their remaining education characterized by countless preparation classes and tutoring focused exclusively on teaching to the test. Additionally, the rising standards can present serious challenges to the many students already struggling to graduate from high school.
A better solution would be to give students more-meaningful options after completing the 10th grade graduation requirements. Students could elect to attend a traditional senior high school and complete their junior and senior years following a conventional graduation path. An overwhelming majority of students would probably make that choice.
But for students not inclined to continue on an academic track, other two-year programs would be made available and funded by the state. These programs, operating outside the traditional school system, would encompass a wide variety of technical and vocational pursuits. Students might enter a two-year apprenticeship in a service industry training to be a heating and air conditioning technician, a cosmetologist, a physician’s assistant, an electrician, a plumber, a computer technician, or any number of other occupations, which would result in a state license instead of a senior high school diploma.
The benefits of having students learn such occupations in an authentic environment focused on their interests and needs would be a powerful deterrent to dropping out. These “schools” would be focused on student needs and interests as well as the needs of the work environment. Funding support would need to be matched to the specific program and not unreasonably restrain educational options for students. State oversight would be critical to minimizing fraud and incompetence in these programs.
There would also be advantages to the majority of students remaining in traditional senior high schools. The elimination of state-mandated accountability testing after the 10th grade is another proposed change that would certainly be welcomed by students and teachers.
Instead, senior high schools would rely on test measures such as the PSAT, the SAT, the ACT, Advanced Placement exams, and other tests linked to college-concurrent courses, in addition to student course grades. The high-stakes-testing anxiety that hangs like a cloud over juniors, seniors, and the school staff would begin to dissipate.
This reform plan could be expected to realize significant advantages for secondary students, ranging from potential dropouts to the most capable students. Redefining a regular high school diploma as successful completion of all 10th grade accountability standards and coursework would put graduation within the grasp of many students who might otherwise give up. Providing meaningful incentives, including limitations on driver’s licenses and work permits, would introduce a motivational factor beyond what most students have experienced.
We can only imagine what opportunities will emerge for students when public schools become less restrictive in determining how students are educated. The time has come to consider changing how we define secondary education in America.
A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2016 edition of Education Week as A Radical Solution to the Dropout Problem