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Fewer Dropouts, More Graduates

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I have yet to talk to anyone who opposes decreasing the dropout rate in our nation's high schools. The question is, what's the best way to do it? The dropout numbers are staggering. So is the economic impact on individuals and society. I believe we need systematic plans that address individual student needs. My experiences have shown me that once a student finds his or her niche, the fire starts burning and thoughts of dropping out are replaced with excitement about getting to school the next day.

Our first task: review the data and define the problem - which can be a confusing process because of the use of different methods to calculate dropout and graduation rates. For purposes of this post I will refer to the "averaged freshman graduation rate (AFGR)." An explanation of how this is calculated is provided by The National Center For Educational Statistics (NCES) as follows:

(AFGR)--an estimate of the number of regular diplomas issued in a given year divided by an estimate of the averaged enrollment base for the freshman class 4 years earlier. For each year, the averaged freshman enrollment base is the sum of the number of 8th-graders 5 years earlier, the number of 9th-graders 4 years earlier (when current-year seniors were freshmen), and the number of 10th-graders 3 years earlier, divided by 3. The intent of this averaging is to account for the high rate of grade retention in the freshman year, which adds 9th-grade repeaters from the previous year to the number of students in the incoming freshman class each year.

Based on the AFGR, the nation's 2009-2010 graduation rate was 78.2%. This was our best performance since 1974, but our national crisis continues: 21.8% of students did not graduate. A state-by-state review of these rates is provided by the United States Department of Education.

For those who did not graduate, the negative impact is dramatic. According to the Child Trends Data Bank, the full- and part-time employment rate in 2011 among 16-to-24-year-olds who dropped out of high school was just 50 percent were employed. The employment rate for high school graduates with no college attainment was 61 percent; for those with some college or an associate degree, 75 percent; and for those with a bachelor's degree or higher, 86 percent. The Alliance For Excellent Education estimates, "that if the 1.3 million high school dropouts from the Class of 2010 had earned their diplomas instead of dropping out, the U.S. economy would have seen an additional $337 billion in wages over these students' lifetimes. And that's only for one year - the country can expect to lose well over $300 billion in potential earnings next year as well, due to dropouts from the Class of 2011. If this annual pattern is allowed to continue, 13 million students will drop out of school during the next decade at a cost to the nation of more than $3 trillion."

There is no question that we are facing a crisis. Now we must share best practice solutions to make a positive impact. Many schools, districts, and communities are implementing systemic solutions that are making a difference. The key is that programs must be systematic and comprehensive (in other words, there are no silver bullets). Tools must be developed to help monitor progress and deliver early intervention when needed. One such tool is the Intervention Graduation Positioning System (IGPS). Comprehensive programs must begin as early as pre-school and continue throughout a child's K-12 experience.

Here is an example of such a program:

1. Set the dropout age at 18 to establish the mindset that this is very serious and the expectation is for all students to graduate. This should be the cornerstone of all programs. (There are some studies that conclude raising the age to 18 does not always work, but those studies look at the age in isolation of other factors. It is critical that we look at the difference a full program makes, not just one aspect. Additionally, both parents and educators support raising the dropout age. A 2013 poll by the Foundation for Healthy Kentucky, for example, found 85% of parents favoring raising the dropout age to 18. And the National Education Association's position as part of a 12-Point Action Plan for Reducing the School Dropout Rate calls for mandating high school graduation or equivalency as compulsory for everyone below the age of 21.

2. Provide alternative programs early to help put kids in their areas of interest, or their niche, to ensure they are motivated to stay in school.

3. Full partnerships with the community with programs like City Connects where communities work with schools to provide needed resources for kids in need.

4. Provide technological, any-time alternatives to physical seat time in classrooms. This is the way many of our students learn best today.

5. Offer career pathways to let kids understand the relevance of an education and where it can take them.

6. Monitor their progress closely and intervene very early when needed.

7. Expanded mentoring programs like peer tutoring, community partnerships, business involvement, etc.

8. Extended school services to help kids who are falling behind.

9. Credit recovery programs that provide hope and light at the end of the tunnel for students who are falling behind.

10. Increased counseling for students

11. Early childhood programs to focus on very early prevention.

12. Increased parent engagement programs and opportunities.

13. Expanding opportunities in the arts and extracurricular activities.

This is just an example of a comprehensive and systematic program that will have a positive impact on the crisis we are facing. To those who ask, "How can we afford to do this?" I say, "How can we afford not to do it?" Investment in these types of programs will be more than offset by the returns when we truly fix this problem.

Regarding the debate on raising the dropout age, a good friend shares: "We don't let children drive at age 12, get married at 13, buy cigarettes at 14, or take out mortgages at 15, because we understand their capacities aren't matched to what's at stake yet. In today's world, the stakes on finishing high school have gone way up: if it ever made sense to let 16-year-olds take the huge gamble involved in dropping out, it doesn't make sense now." This is also much more than numbers and statistics. It is about the lives of individuals and increasing their chances of being successful and productive members of society.

I urge you to advocate in your communities for comprehensive programs that will have an impact on the dropout crisis we are facing. This starts by supporting a dropout age that fits with today's society as the cornerstone for improvement.

Follow Stu Silberman on Twitter at //twitter.com/stusilbermanfc

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