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What's Going on with High School Dropouts?

No Child Left Behind imposes serious consequences on schools for low test scores, but regarding dropout rates -- where students are literally left behind -- it barely does anything.
 
 
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The education industry has been abuzz with talk of "dropout factories" in the wake of a recent Johns Hopkins University study that says 12 percent of the nation's high schools have less than 60 percent of its students who start as freshmen and make it to their senior year.

The findings are not too surprising -- students were dropping out at about the same rate a decade ago. But, the attention being given so-called "dropout factories" is important because it underscores a glaring hole in No Child Left Behind law, just as Congress and the White House are wrangling over whether to reauthorize the five-year-old legislation.

"The current law imposes serious consequences on schools that report low scores on math and reading tests, such as having to replace teachers or principals, but it lacks the same kind of teeth when it comes to graduation rates," the AP reports.

The social costs of students not completing high school are steep. Bill Gates Sr., co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told the United Way of Greater Los Angeles last week, "each year's cohort of dropouts costs us $325 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity over their lifetimes. Dropouts are eight times more likely to be in jail or prison than high school graduates. Only a quarter of dropouts vote. The figure for high school graduates is half, and it's three quarters for college graduates."

Counting the cost, Gates is convinced "that solving the high school crisis" is America's "most pressing moral obligation and our most urgent domestic policy priority."

Even as a high school drop-out myself, it's hard to disagree with that, though, as a footnote, a longitudinal study published in the Education Statistics Quarterly indicates "63 percent (of students) who drop out of high school at least once go on to earn a high school diploma or alternative credential within several years, and 43 percent enroll in a postsecondary institution."

Why "dropout?" The fine folks at Gates family foundation actually bothered to survey students about why they chose to leave high school. Nearly half (47 percent) said they left because "classes were not interesting."

Nearly seven in ten -- 69 percent -- said they were "not motivated" or "inspired to work hard," even though two-thirds said they would've worked harder if more was demanded of them.

Many students gave personal reasons for leaving school with 32 percent citing a need for a job or a way to make money; 26 percent said they had kids to support; and another 22 percent said they dropped out to care for a family member.

And check this out: 35 percent said "failing in school" was a major factor for dropping out and 45 percent said they started high school "poorly prepared by their earlier schooling."

The survey ends with a sober observation: "As complex as these individual circumstances may be, for almost all young people, dropping out of high school is not a sudden act, but a gradual process of disengagement; attendance patterns are a clear early sign."

Speaking at a "Dropout Forum" sponsored by the Alliance for Education, Gates Foundation education director Steven Seleznow shared an important insight from the survey. Seleznow said that while making students repeat a grade "makes everybody feel like we've got really tough standards, by and large it destroys the spirit of a student; destroys their inspiration, motivation. And in many cases, if you look at these dropouts, repeating a grade was a big indicator in their decision-making later in high school."

Again, on a purely pragmatic policy level, one of several problems with NCLB is that it punishes schools for low test scores but doesn't effectively address graduation rates. Can't you see the "unintended consequences" coming? As the pressure to avoid being punished for low test scores increases, so too does the pressure to discourage underperforming students to drop out of school.

Testing? All the research I've seen has confirmed what my children have taught me: self-motivated learning is the key to unlocking academic achievement; not coming up with more sophisticated ways of doling out carrots and sticks.

The question isn't: how do we raise test scores? Question is: how do we create schools, not factories, that encourage and enhance students' natural will to learn -- starting long before high school, even before pre-school begins?

Pop quiz: What's more biologically basic than sexual desire? The will to learn. And what's the Latin root for "education?" Educare, which means "to lead out from within."

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.