ESEA Reauthorization Presents Opportunity to Address Dropout Crisis
Across our nation's urban centers and in many rural areas, there is hard evidence that we are failing far too many of our nation's youth. More than 1 million young people drop out of high school every year.
But we should not simply view these youth as statistics. They are lost potential and lost human capital, which doesn't bode well for the communities in which they live or for the economic future of our nation. We simply must do better.
Eight years ago, Congress authorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), more widely known as No Child Left Behind. Later, in 2008, ESEA regulations were amended to include provisions that required uniform calculation of graduation rates. The new calculation method reveals a dropout crisis far worse than many imagined and startlingly large graduation gaps between whites and students of color. Only 55 percent of African Americans and 58 percent of Hispanics graduate from high school in four years compared with 78 percent of white students. The percent of students who graduate high school on time is astonishingly low, but it is particularly abysmal for youth of color.
Policymakers should use ESEA reauthorization as an opportunity to retool the law and to put measures in place to ensure that more of our nation's young people earn a high school diploma. ESEA has made significant progress by revealing the magnitude of the dropout crisis. But what the law hasn't done is provide sound solutions for re-engaging youth who have already dropped out. We not only need measures that help prevent young people from dropping out in the first place, we also need aggressive policies that focus on how to reengage youth who already have dropped out.
There is no one defining reason that youth dropout of high school. Some have challenges in the school environment, some have family or other personal situations that interfere with attendance, and others attend schools that may not meet their specific or unique educational needs. Even still, a survey of high school dropouts reveals that a significant majority would re-enroll if they could. They recognize the limits of not having a high school diploma. But having the desire to reenroll and the practical implications of that are quite different.
Older youth, parenting youth, and youth with other barriers to attending conventional high schools may require interventions that are more conducive to their reality. In other words, these young people need options, and those options could include: alternative programs or charter schools; earned credits based on demonstrated competency; accelerated learning models; twilight academies; specialized supports for parenting students; concurrent enrollment in high school and community college, and others.
While schools and school districts alone may not be able to address the unique needs of students who have dropped out, there are a host of other government and private entities that work with youth that may be equipped to fill in the gaps or address issues that schools cannot. In rethinking ESEA, Congress should require states and school districts to collaborate with community-based organizations and youth-serving systems (e.g. workforce investment boards, juvenile justice, child welfare, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, etc.) to support the educational needs of dropouts and those at risk of dropping out. These collaborations could provide more education and training options, in addition to comprehensive services such as transportation, mental health supports, child care and other social services.
ESEA can alleviate the dropout crisis. But it will require political will from the nation's lawmakers as they reauthorize the measure. In addition, it will require states and school districts to be held accountable for preventing students from dropping out as well and re-engaging those who have dropped out. More than 1 million youth dropping out of high school every year is valuable human capital that neither families, communities or this nation can afford to lose.