How do we stop the bleeding? The non-stop drip of one teenager dropping out of high school every 26 seconds? What would it take to keep 1.2 million teenagers in school who would otherwise walk out this year and never come back? At last night's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed making every state require students to stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. That is a common-sense idea and a wise default position, but it is nothing more than life support.
The truth is that many students drop out mentally long before they enter high school. Teachers can notice symptoms of "dropout fever" as early as the third grade. It is often caused by a combination of treatable illnesses like behavioral problems, absenteeism, low literacy levels, lack of homework, and parental challenges (though the latter is much harder to treat). The child will fall further and further behind academically if no strong school interventions take place.
As the student ages, social detractors like drugs, gangs, violence, and, might I dare add, an addiction to video games and social media, take prominence over education. At this point, it takes very dedicated and skilled professionals to get the strong-willed teenager into detox. Students usually care about their education, but oftentimes the student is 16 and is functionally illiterate; or 16 and is expecting her second baby; or 16 and doesn't feel safe at school because of bullying or gang activity. And sometimes a student doesn't have any of those problems: He simply thinks his school is lame or that he would be better off working to help his struggling family survive financially.
I've met all kinds, and they are bleeding out every 26 seconds. Reform efforts to lower the high school dropout rate must be focused on supporting the under-performing students in elementary and middle schools. This is where we can get the best bang for our buck. Of course, high schools would also need systems in place to continue to motivate students to stay in school. I believe that it is never too late to try to help a student, but by the time students prone to dropping out reach high school, they may be in need of an organ transplant—a radical, life-changing intervention. Just forcing him to spend a couple more miserable years in school until he reaches 18 is just prolonging the inevitable, especially if the learning credits are not there.
I could go on and on about the social price we all pay for our nation's high dropout rate: Elevated incarceration rates, budget-busting demands for social services, and skyrocketing crime, unemployment, and poverty rates. African American males are particularly at risk because their dropout rate is more than 50 percent, landing more of them in jail than in college. I need not look further than my own family to see these affects. We are failing so many students in the inner cities and poor rural communities by allowing them to fail.
President Obama announced that our State of the Union is "getting stronger," and from his vantage point he may be right. But as a teacher, I wonder how it is possible to have a strong nation when so many of our children are dropping—dripping, bleeding—out.