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Graduating or Dropping Out: What's the Difference?

Graduation cap and diploma.jpgThe dropout rate at Chicago's Manley High School was over 60% when I taught there, and even higher for males. Yet Rodney Wilson (not his real name) made it to graduation, and his family and friends roared as he received his diploma. No one was louder or prouder than Rodney's girlfriend, Nicole (not her real name), who would graduate from Manley the following year.

I asked Nicole early in her senior year how Rodney was doing. "He's alright," Nicole said, but her face said otherwise. "Is he in school?" I asked. "Not yet," Nicole replied. "He applied to Malcolm X (one of the City Colleges of Chicago) and is planning to go there next year."

"Sounds good. Is he working now?" I replied. "You might say that," Nicole said, telling me everything I needed to know. Rodney's "job" wasn't in an office or restaurant or factory. High school graduate Rodney was doing the same thing he would have been doing had he been high school dropout Rodney: selling drugs on the street corner.

Wish I could say Rodney's story was an isolated case, but a high school diploma is a ticket to nowhere for many urban kids. Kids who get into college but can't stay in. Kids who get jobs but can't hold onto them. Kids who, like Rodney, learn the hard way that graduating isn't all that different from dropping out.

So, how could students do what they need to do to graduate high school, but fall apart afterward? Simple, what they need to do to graduate high school is nothing like what they'll need to do in college or the workplace. In fact, for many urban youth, K-12 success is a set-up for post-secondary failure.

And a big reason for this, as I've written before, is that urban schools often teach students (or reinforce in them) self-defeating behavior. Martin Haberman also wrote about this in his article, Unemployment Training: The Ideology of Non-Work Learned in Urban Schools:

Urban youth are not simply ill prepared for work but systematically and carefully trained to be quitters, failures, and the discouraged workers who no longer even seek employment... The dropout problem among urban youth--as catastrophic as it is--is less detrimental than this active training for unemployment. We need be more concerned for "successful" youth who graduate since it is they who have been most seriously infected. They have been exposed longest, practiced the anti-work behaviors for the longest period, and been rewarded most. In effect, the urban schools create a pool of youth much larger than the number of dropouts who we have labeled as "successful" but who have been more carefully schooled for failure.

Haberman went on to describe the beliefs and behaviors that make up the ideology of non-work. It's a provocative piece, which I ask urban educators to read and discuss when I help them take ownership of students' failures rather than blame poverty, parents, policies, or other outside factors. Read Haberman's article if you work with urban youth, and reflect on what you may be doing to set them up for post-secondary failure--just as I was doing until I realized it and made some of the changes I've shared on this blog (Non-Academic Skills category).

Another graduation season is here, and it should be a time for celebration. But for me it's a reminder of kids like Rodney--who never did enroll at Malcolm X--and Nicole whose pride in Rodney at graduation was replaced by shame two months later. I've had the privilege of working with several urban schools whose graduates are prepared for college and work. But you won't see me celebrating until that's the case with all urban schools.


Image by Jiris, provided by Dreamstime license

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