Dropout Nation

President Obama recently outlined his “get tough on failing schools” plan at an America’s Promise Alliance meeting. The organization, which was founded by Colin Powell and his wife Alma, is a collaborative network that provides assistance to volunteer groups working with children and youth. In his speech, the President once again called for action in the area of education reform, citing the dropout problem in the United States has great consequences for the economy of the country, as well as a detrimental social impact.

Speaking in terms of dollars and cents, the White House fact sheet on high school dropouts reveals startling numbers:

  • 7,000 students drop out of high school daily
  • 1.2 million teens leave high school before graduating every year
  • the nation’s overall graduation rate is about 70%


The methods used for calculating these numbers do have their flaws. They don’t take into account that students in metropolitan areas frequently shift from school to school, which makes it hard to keep track of graduation rates. And students who later return to school, or obtain a G.E.D, aren’t counted at all. Nonetheless, U.S. dropout numbers are sobering.

What’s even more thought-twisting is another bit of “trivia” the White House fact sheet felt compelled to include – dropouts are costing the government and the economy a lot of money.

Every year $3.9 billion in potentially taxable/spendable earnings are thrown away by kids who don’t finish high school. Every dollar a young person doesn’t earn depletes the U.S. Treasury and submarines the American GDP.

Personally, I could get behind education reform with more enthusiasm if the economy wasn’t invoked every time someone in the administration gave a speech on why reform is so urgently necessary. I’d like to think my daughter, her peers, and all the children I’ve taught as students, were worthy of an education for their own sakes, as opposed to being some sort of economic investment for our Uncle Sam.

Perhaps that’s just me?

Obama’s plan for dealing with dropouts rests on the idea that failing schools are at fault. The plan, which is not that dissimilar from the one proposed in George Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is multi-optioned and aimed primarily at the nation’s poorest children who account for a majority of high school dropouts.

Unlike NCLB, which was basically unfunded, the President’s plan will provide $900 million for school turnaround grants. Schools will be targeted on the basis of low graduation rates and low test scores.

The four of the available options for reform include:

  • Turnaround – firing the principal and half the staff
  • Restart – firing the principal and turning the school over to a charter/outside management
  • Transformation – firing the principal and then implementing steps that would increase teacher effectiveness and increase learning time (longer day or school year)
  • Closing the school and reassigning the students to new schools.


There isn’t much credible data on the effectiveness of any of the reform options in this new war on dropouts. In fact, the New York City Department of Education has been closing failing schools and the early returns seem to indicate the students are simply being relocated to other failing schools, or those on the brink of failure.

A few states are bucking Obama’s call for college-ready graduates in favor of systems more like that of the U.K. or several Asian countries. There, pilot programs are designed to graduate students from high school after the 10th grade, funneling those teens into vocational training at community colleges.

As a former teacher in a dropout prevention program, I know there are few easy fixes for this complex problem. The President acknowledged in his address that the education of the nation’s young is not just the government’s problem to fix. He said parents, business leaders and non-profit organizations need to step up and pitch in, too, and I agree. Expecting schools, alone, to combat the issue of dropouts hasn’t worked so far.

Recently I had a long conversation with a teacher friend whose middle school has been on the NCLB watch list for several years. She expressed her frustration with the top down approach to “fixing” her school. To her, the issue is always about what is best for her students – her “kids.”

“Why don’t they ever ask us?” she wanted to know. “What don’t they let us really teach?”

A good question. Perhaps it’s addressed in the finer print of the President’s plan.

But what do you think? What should/can be done about failing schools and dropouts?  Is your child attending a school that is failing? How is your school district reaching out to dropouts or potential dropouts? And what do you think of the President’s reform plan?




Graduation by gundamwing4132 via flickr
Ann Bibby


Vallee Rose
Vallee R7 years ago

Don't know all about the reform plan (and commented on your other petition), but getting rid of tenure teachers with poor test scores is a start. I find many newer teachers tend to do more. My daughter dropped out 3 times from HS. SHe had a counselor who tried everything to get her back in but school was boring and the principal didn't like her (he even told me it was because of him that she was dropping out). He kept suspending her for nothing. I told the counselor later he wasn't a failure, as he told me he was, because she did end up getting her GED. She tried college, but didn't work. Instead she workd for the Attorney General and is learning on the job accounting and doing well. So there are just too many elements to say exactly how to fix things when you live in a place where a HS teacher tells your daughter, "No wonder your mother doesn't like you" and he admits it in front of the principal and gets not only his hand slapped, but made prinicipal of an elementary school the following year! Sometimes you just can't win.

Kaye Skinner
Rev. Dr. Kaye S7 years ago

Such sad statistics. We need to make schools more interesting for kids.

Zavier M.
Ali McFall7 years ago

They're cutting my minor (French), if they cut Liberal Arts even at the high school level, students (statistically females,which I am one) who are washed out of math and science will fell inferior and drop out. Also, students are economic insurance that our society will continue, if students drop out they did cost us money, but its not their fault. The fault is the system, look at Europe where most good students get at most 80% of college paid, where those 'washed out' students end up in trade school. We tell everyone "you have to go to college" the reality is not everyone is cut out for it. As a current college student I wish the 10% of students that don't want to be there weren't, because they waste the profs time and mine. But their parents and society tell them to waste their time, money, life, and sanity pursuing something their not interested in.

Mary B.
May Brown7 years ago

Maybe they should stop cutting on the arts so that school could be ENJOYABLE again. And they should make school more about learning than passing...ugh.

Kaye Skinner
Rev. Dr. Kaye S7 years ago

I have noticed that. I would have thought that the Charter schools would have been positive alternatives.

Elaine Dixon
Elaine Dixon7 years ago


Ann G.
Ann G7 years ago

This is a hard topic to discuss because there are no clear answers and also because we all care very much about this. I don't know what to think, actually. Hopefully it will work and if it doesn't, hopefully we can figure out something else to do.

George Waldo
Past Member 7 years ago

Exactly! Parents don’t want to take responsibility anymore; they want to be “friends” and not parents. Parents need to take an active part of their kid’s lives (looking at homework, seeing the teacher, knowing who their friends are and monitoring their lives). Kids have no privacy; no rights (within reason) and most do not have the capacity to make rational thoughts. Cars, phones and free time should be earned, not just given (once given it should be taken away if they don’t keep up their part of the bargain). Look at Jaywalking (Jay Leno show) and see how stupid people are (even collage students). Kids own a large part of their education and ignorance, they are the ones that need to learn, and parents need to also teach. Parents need to check on the teachers, tests, quizzes and the books. They have a deciding vote if things are all messed up, they can go to the school district and lodge a formal complaint.

Joslyn D.
Joslyn D.7 years ago

Let's question everything....because, alot of times, the problem isn't obvious when you are only looking at a certain kind of question. Maybe instead, we should look at the point of compulsory education, first. Do you know why it was instituted? Read the Underground History of American Education-it's free on the web. Discover what you really think of public education and then take at look at what you want for your child....without all the talk of mandates and firings stressing you and distracting you. What do you really want for your children...when you discover that, you'll know exactly what kind of education to create for them, and your children will be able to help you with that too. I recently chose to homeschool my son. He is so excited to learn. Yes, we sacrificed some things and finances to do it, instead of me working while he is in school all day. But he can learn in half the day what others too, and at his own pace. I can align the curriculum to exactly my family's values, and we schedule social time for him often, so he has friends and learns how to get along with others. This option will necessarily leave teachers without jobs, but society needs to take a hard look at what compulsory education is really doing....and be restructured for the benefit of those that matter the most-our children.

Holly M.
H K7 years ago

Tamilia, LIFE is boring at times. It is not all fun and games. STOP making excuses as to why kids drop out! Parents CODDLE kids today. There are no expectations for them to put in some EFFORT in school. High School kids are the ones who should do the "menial" jobs after school, on weekends, and during the summer. But they are too "busy" trying to be the next SPORTS hero!