1. Are the dropout rates in the nation’s public schools getting better, worse, or
staying the same?
2. Is the dropout rate gap for minorities and those in poverty getting better,
worse, or staying the same?
My bet is that most average citizens would answer worse to both questions. That is certainly the message fostered by the popular media. The dropout rate and the achievement gap are two of the most frequent criticisms of our public schools.
Given that media message, it was interesting that there was almost no coverage of the June 2015 release of the NCES report: Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972–2012. The graph in Figure 1 shows the trend from 1972 to 2012 in the “Event Dropout Rate.” That factor measures the percent of students who dropout in a given year.
Figure 2 shows the trend in the "Status Dropout" rate for 16-24 year-olds during the same time frame. It represents the percent within that age range who are not enrolled in high school and who haven’t received a diploma or an alternative such as the GED.
This data stands on its own in highlighting a remarkable, yet unheralded achievement of our public schools. But to fully understand the significance of this accomplishment, some other trends need to be understood. The first is the impact of poverty. According to a 2006 report by the National Center for Children in Poverty, the number of children living in poverty was at a relatively low point of 12.1 million in 2000. A 2013 report by the Economic Policy Institute stated that number had increased to 16.1 million in 2012. In other words, during the last 12 years of the dropout data cited above, there were 4 million or 33 percent more US children living in poverty.
There is ample research evidence indicating an inverse relation between poverty and academic achievement. That research consists mostly of correlational studies, however. A recent study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics connected this lower achievement by children living in poverty to measurable deficits in their brain development. This research provides strong evidence for what most educators know from experience--children living in poverty generally have a harder time mastering academic content.
One other demographic trend is worth noting in relation to the improving dropout data cited above. According to a 2010 paper published by the Migration Policy Institute, between 1997 and 2008 there was a 53 percent increase in the English Language Learner enrollment in our nation’s public schools. By 2008, those students represented nearly 11 percent of the total enrollment. Clearly, it is much more challenging for these students to become proficient with academic content while learning the language of instruction.
In addition to these demographic trends, we have also witnessed a significant increase in the academic standards that students must meet in order to graduate. In Washington State for example, during the past two decades we’ve gone from requiring 19 to 24 total credits; from requiring two credits in science to three credits; and from requiring two unspecified credits of math to three credits including algebra, geometry, and algebra II. In addition, we have gone from no state-mandated standards or required test, to very rigorous standards aligned to a challenging test required for graduation.
Given these increasingly challenging contextual factors, the improving graduation rates cited in the NCES report are truly remarkable. Based on this information, our educators should be celebrated for the achievement; but if there is any mention of this information at all, it’s generally critical of the percent that don’t graduate or the size of the gap.
In sharing this information, I am not saying that the graduation rates and achievement gaps in our schools don’t warrant serious attention. During the period of time reflected in the NCES data, the prospects for dropouts in our economy and society as a whole have become much worse. Given that fact, educators are working hard to get even more students over the graduation bar. But given the data reflected in the above charts, educators should be congratulated, not castigated for the progress they have achieved in this area. The fact that they aren’t, contributes to a morale problem that will be addressed in a future article.