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Is the Dropout Crisis as Urgent as the Mortgage Crisis?


During Tuesday's Democratic debate in Las Vegas, sponsored by MSNBC, the three front-runners were asked a very serious question about education.

To what do you attribute the high dropout rate among African-American students, and what would you do about it?

The question went to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama first, but eventually, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards answered it, too. Their proposed solutions were similar, and complementary: universal prekindergarten, after-school programs, "second-chance" schools for dropouts, promoting fatherhood, etc.

But did you notice something in common about their answers? In response to a question about kids who drop out of school, the candidates barely mentioned any thoughts they have on helping kids while they are actually in a school, during the traditional school day. After all, students are most at risk of dropping out during their freshman year of high school.

To be sure, the Democratic solutions can all be considered very important. In fact, I've blogged before about how fixing America's education crisis won't be accomplished just by fixing what goes on inside a school building.

But did Sen. Clinton forget that she's the only candidate who actually has a dropout plan that she maintains will cut the number of kids who leave school in half? She didn't even mention it.

Sen. Obama did mention paying teachers better and reforming No Child Left Behind (with little explanation), but he hung his answer on pre-k.

There's little doubt that high-quality prekindergarten is beneficial for students, particulary those at risk of failure in school. But there's also little doubt that prekindergarten programs need to be high quality. How would the next president ensure that funds are used on high-quality preschool programs, particularly for students who need help the most?

In addition, for the candidates who say pre-k will solve the dropout problem, I wonder how that helps the students who are in school now. Even if prekindergarten for every child was available this year, that does little to help the kindergarteners, and older students, who are in the system now, moving from grade to grade. Along the way, 1 million drop out each year. That's at least 12 million kids—the population of Ohio—dropping out over the next dozen years while the candidates pin their hopes on prekindergarten.

In the debate, when asked about the economic and mortgage crisis, Sen. Clinton said: "We need to move urgently. We have a lot of big agenda items ... universal health care, college affordability -- but we can't wait. We're going to lose another, you know, million Americans in home foreclosures."

What about the million students we lose every year from high schools? Does that require us to move urgently?


One can only hope that the candidates were not expecting the question and didn't prepare. It is true that Hillary has on her website all the right things--clearly she has attracted someone to her camp who did their research.

When you actually look at the research, it is possible to pare the problem down to a much more manageable size. There are 2 major transitions when we lose kids (6th grade and 9th grade). We lose way more of them in some districts than in others. Working really hard to get kids back on track when they first fall off has a big impact. Pumping mega resources (read time and talent) into these transitions and ensuring a relationship-rich atmosphere at those key times and places with a focus on ensuring that everyone who enters the 9th grade completes the year ready for 10th makes a huge difference. Maybe all the candidates (H. included) should take a look at the Clinton website.

I was more impressed with Obama's answer than either of you, but I want to put in a word for Edward's response. (Actually I think its also in Obama's plan but he didn't mention it.)

Pre-K and other early interventions are the areas where we will get the most bang for the buck. As John Hopkins research shows, high poverty kids still need continuing interventions until 20 years old or so. Focusing on transitions is smart, but I wouldn't overrate its effectiveness. We may just be delaying the dropout age to 10th and 11th grade. Again Obama is correct on two huge issues. Parents matter much much more than schools and Obama can use the bully pulpit better than anyone, and why not emphasize adult education more? The correlary is that we don't know much about creating schools that can overcome poverty. But we do know that individual teachers matter greatly. So, Obama's Marshall Plan for teachers makes sense.

Edwards indicated that we need to invest more in 19 and 20 year olds. Implicit in that approach, life's experiences and maturity make a difference. Here's a "thought experiment." Take a bunch of the online tutorials we have bought, partially in an effort to "teacher-proof" instruction, for high schools and ship them over to a program for older dropouts who want to return to school. I bet the effectiveness of those programs would increase dramatically. If teens don't recieve intensive nurturing and motivational support, a lot of them will blow off their opportunities. Teens seek relationships and they lack maturity. Even the old-fashioned approaches they use in the military's continuing ed work much better with young adults.

We adults created the absurd system of NCLB, but now we get a second chance. Don't teens deserve similar opportunities for a second chance?


Obama or Clinton will be the next president (hopefully). If I were to advise either of them as to how to minimize our absurd drop-out problem I would put an enormous amount of emphasis on pre-K through grade two.

The LA Times had an excellent series a while back entitled "Reading By Nine." It emphasized the importance of kids entering third grade reading at grade (3) level. It documented the accurate predictability of states' future prison populations based on the reading levels/abilities of their third graders.

I would encourage these two individuals to be prepared to spend whatever is necessary, not just on the school budget, but also for the necessary social services required to give these kids a fighting chance in life.

Margo, I am not denying the transition years of sixth and ninth grade are crucial. I would contend, however, by this point in most kids' lives the horse is already out of the barn. The cavalry has to arrive much earlier in the lives of most of these kids if they're going to be saved academically.

At the same time I would have to agree with Michele's concern about the million kids we're currently losing per year. If they were all white kids from the burbs our society wouldn't stand for it. Because they're poor, minority kids from urban neighborhoods, somehow that makes their expendability acceptable? Not on my watch would it be.

Another fine post Michele.

There needs to be some discussion at the national level about non-governmental solutions. For example, what can we do to promote a culture of literacy? Getting kids reading on grade level, as Paul Hoss suggests, is critical, but requires a partnership of the school and the home. Fact is, too many homes don't view reading as a priority or promote it with their children. We need a "turn off the tv" campaign. We need to make authors celebrities. We need to make reading cool. There are lots of ways states can work to improve reading instruction, but it's a cultural issue as well. As long as we have a video game/television culture that puts kids in front of a screen for half the day, we're going to struggle getting kids to read.

Sometimes governmental/policy solutions are only part of the answer.

High profile politicians, including Barack Obama, are seeking to limit the American peoples’ access to on-demand, short term financial assistance. Some cities and towns are trying to impose restrictions on where these legitimate businesses can set up shop. Even worse, several states, including Georgia and North Carolina, have successfully imposed all-out bans on the industry, with several more attempting to follow suit. Citizens all across the nation are seeking to have their voices heard by fighting legislation that would obliterate the payday loan industry nationwide; Obama, and other misinformed political officials, are pushing for a complete ban in the name of personal political gain, regardless of the hundreds of thousands of potential lost jobs in an already turbulent economy.

To look at the bright side of this, at least the government has plans how to resolve dropout crisis. The question now is when will we see the effect?

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