The Dropout Dilemma

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

high schools are again under fire, and this time, Judge
Manning (the judge presiding over the Leandro case)
isn’t the one fanning the flames. Rather, Governors from most of the states have
entered the fray, calling for reforms to American high schools
and to data collection on graduation rates.

At the
annual meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA)
this month, 47 Governors signed Graduation Counts: A Compact on State High
School Graduation Data
, a commitment to improving data
collection on a variety of measures including graduation rates
and other student outcomes. In addition, the Governors pledged
to begin implementing a “standard, four-year adjusted cohort
graduation rate,” and to report annually on progress made
collecting dropout and graduation data. The U.S. Department of
Education, in recognition of widespread statistical
inconsistencies, announced at the NGA meeting that it would
provide an “Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate,”
appearing alongside state data.

The discussion over
the diverse (and often inaccurate) way in which state
graduation data are reported is the latest round in a
controversy sparked by Jay Greene’s 2001 report on high school graduation rates. This report
revealed much lower graduation rates for many states
than were reported by state education agencies. (Consider that
in 2003, the state Department of Public Instruction
reported North Carolina’s graduation rate as 97%, while Mr.
Greene found our graduation rate to be 63%). Clearly, Mr.
Greene’s sensible formula (calculating how many 9th graders
actually graduate 4 years later) incited vigorous debate over
the ill-conceived formulas used to determine these rates in
many states.

There’s no question that implementing
universal standards for data collection will give us a better
idea of how students are doing, and how states compare to one
another. But it will not solve the more fundamental issue:
current curriculum and teaching methods fail to inculcate
basic knowledge in many American adolescents, whether
state data reflects this or not. And high school students are
the first to agree. In fact, an online survey of more than
10,000 teenagers conducted by the NGA found that high schoolers know they are
not stretched academically: a large majority say their
work is not particularly difficult. Fewer than two-thirds of
these students felt that their high schools had done a good
job of challenging them academically or preparing them for

What can we do? Much depends on how we
resolve the following dilemma: Do we simply use high schools
to prepare students for the workforce, or do we provide
students with a foundational, classical education? Marc
Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the
Economy and vociferous advocate of a school-to-work agenda,
would have us believe our high school crisis is a result of
students who are ill-prepared for work in the global economy.
Unfortunately, Mr. Tucker’s controversial school-to-work agenda has influenced high
school reforms over the past 13 years. In fact, his 1992
letter to Hillary Clinton, outlining his recommendations for
reforming America’s education system, can be found in the Congressional Record.

Clearly, our
high schools are badly in need of reform. Correcting the flaws
in our data collection process is a good first step. But we
also need to be clear that high school is not just a place
where students acquire vocational skills. Rather, adolescents
should be immersed in the academic basics, like mathematics,
history, and literature. Exposing students to a rich and
rigorous academic curriculum prepares them for engagement in
all facets of life, not just the labor market.

Lindalyn Kakadelis is the director of the North Carolina Education Alliance.