Addressing the Dropout Crisis with a Change in Policy and Thinking
By Drew Haverly
Millions of high school-age students who should be on spring break this month are instead entirely disconnected from school and work. They are youth today but, without intervention, tomorrow they will be among the least educated workers who are most likely to struggle to land and maintain employment.
Just today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released data confirming what we already knew. Those with the least education have the highest rates of unemployment. The national unemployment rate is now 8.3 percent, but for workers without a high school diploma, it is 12.9 percent (4.6 percentage points higher than those with a high school diploma and 5.6 percent higher than those with some college). It is a problem that threatens the economic stability of families and communities.
One in four students fails to finish high school on time, and in the most at-risk communities, the number jumps to one in two. Boosting the high school graduation rate calls for unconventional thinking. Experts note that if the federal government and states move away from measuring high school graduation rates based on traditional four-year models, they could incentivize districts to develop dropout prevention and recovery strategies to ensure more youth earn a high school diploma.
Making Every Diploma Count, a brief recently re-released by the American Youth Policy Forum, Gateway to College National Network and the National Youth Employment Coalition, suggests the nation can increase the number of students earning a high school diploma or its equivalent if states and districts begin calculating extended-year graduation rates. This expanded rate captures what four-year graduation rates don't: the number of students who are able to graduate despite taking an extra year or two to do so. According to the brief, schools and districts that serve students who are over-aged and under-credited as well as those who may have dropped out are often categorized as "in need of improvement". This discourages states and districts from developing strategies or expanding programs to help these students graduate since the standard accountability measures of success is the percent of students who earn their diplomas four years after starting ninth grade.
Ensuring students have the tools they need to graduate "on time" is essential. However, state and local education policy must also address the needs of struggling students and those who drop out of school. Across the nation, there are 3.4 million such youth who are not enrolled in school and don't have a high school diploma. Employing extended-year graduation rate measures, coupled with multiple education pathways and community-wide approaches, will allow states and communities to capture and better support struggling youth. Two states making progress are Michigan and Texas, which have already begun changing the way schools and districts are held accountable by including extended-year graduation rates in their data. Such a change in accountability rating does not take anything away from schools with high four-year graduation rates. But, importantly, it provides incentives for schools to serve former dropouts or struggling students who may graduate after the four-year window. Additionally, there are several local school districts that calculate 5- and 6-year extended graduation cohort rates, including Philadelphia and Portland. The data reveals that implementing extended-year graduation rates has increased the number of students earning a high school credential in these communities.
If districts and states continue to evaluate success based solely on four-year graduation rates, schools will continue to have no incentive to work with returning dropouts and implement programs that can help them get back on track. Keeping young people in school is a top priority. But re-engaging those who have dropped out or are struggling most is also key. It's critical that schools begin thinking outside the box about how to address the dropout crisis and ensure more young people finish school and build a foundation that will help them become more employable as adults. As the data show, those with the least education have lower incomes and higher rates of unemployment. In turn, more states should consider the Michigan and Texas examples and incorporate extended-year rates into their accountability measures to promote and reward efforts that help re-engage disconnected youth.