The New York Times | May 17, 2009
About one in five American students drops out of high school today, and there are some schools where students have only a 50-50 chance of getting a diploma.
Hearings held last week before the House education committee suggest that Congress may be ready to tackle this problem. To solve it, federal, state and local governments will all need to focus intensely on the relatively small number of troubled schools that produce a majority of the nation’s dropouts.
The country should be much further along the road to addressing what is truly an educational crisis. Part of the fault lies with the Bush administration’s abysmal stewardship of the No Child Left Behind law of 2002, which required states to report dropout rates annually. Too many states phonied up those statistics, with some intentionally failing to count students who had quit school in the ninth, 10th or 11th grade.
A belated rule change issued last year will at last require the states to keep track of students from the time they enter high school to the day they get their diplomas — or leave school without one.
If there is any good news here, it is that the problem is localized. According to Robert Balfanz, of Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center, just 12 percent of the nation’s 20,000 high schools account for half of the country’s dropouts and almost three-quarters of its minority dropouts. By focusing on these high schools — and the lower schools that feed them — the country stands a good chance of keeping in school millions of students who would otherwise drop out.
Researchers can now predict as early as sixth grade which students are likely to leave school without diplomas. These children are often easy to reach because they feel bad about performing poorly in school and want desperately to succeed. Several states and localities, often working with foundations and community groups, have already lowered dropout rates significantly by providing help to students and strengthening the schools they attend.
The dropout problem is fixable. To do that, federal state and local governments must work together to remake the “dropout factories.” That means putting public money into prevention programs that have been shown to keep children in school.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 19, 2009
In some editions, a May 18 editorial on school dropouts misstated the number of high schools in the United States. There are more than 20,000, not 2,000.