Every single school day, more than 7,200 kids, on average, drop out of high school—1.3 million each year. In many American cities, including Miami, Denver, Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis, most public school students don’t graduate. In Detroit, the unhappy poster child for American industrial decline, a study from last year showed that a mere quarter of students earn high school diplomas.
The entrenched nature of the American drop-out crisis undermines the public’s interest, but the effects are wide-ranging and insidious, according to a new analysis of Census data undertaken by The Daily Beast. Cities with large populations of high school dropouts suffer from lower incomes, depressed tax bases, and generally poor social services and quality of life. Indeed, the number two drop-out capital in our survey—McAllen, Texas, where over 15 percent of adults have no diploma—is also the city in the United States with the highest health care costs, and the subject of a searing New Yorker exposé by AtulGawande.
President Obama has sworn to address the dropout crisis. In his first address to a joint session of Congress, last February, the president called on all Americans to commit to one year of post-high school education. “We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation, and half of the students who begin college never finish,” Obama said. “This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
No Child Left Behind, the controversial Bush-era education law, focused on elementary schools, some experts say at the expense of struggling high schools. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is now committing $3.5 billion to “turn around” the nation’s very worst schools, most of which are in impoverished communities. Just 15 percent of American high schools—known in the education world as “dropout factories”—produce more than half of American dropouts, and three-quarters of black and Latino dropouts. Geographically, these failing schools are clustered in California, the Old South, and the Southwest—the same regions The Daily Beast finds remain magnets for grown-up dropouts, and where the average individual income is just $25,473.
Alma Powell is the chairwoman of America’s Promise, an organization devoted to the well-being of young people that was founded by her husband, Gen. Colin Powell. Since last year, her organization has been convening a series of dropout summits all over the country, bringing together politicians, educators, kids and other members of the community to try and spark a sense of urgency and figure out what can be done. They’ve held 65 so far, and are planning more than 100. “It sounds drastic, but literally the future of our nation is at stake if we do not correct it,” Powell says of the dropout rate.
Like her husband, Powell is non-ideological and socially-engaged. She was a vocal advocate for S-CHIP, the children’s health-insurance program, at a time when George W. Bush vetoed it. School reform, in her view, involves traditionally conservative concerns like taking on the teachers unions, but it also means addressing “kids who come from a poor family and had nothing to eat.” She brings up the tragic story of a young Washington, D.C. boy who had a tooth infection that, left untreated, spread to his brain. “He died for lack of a filling in his tooth,” she says, incredulous.
Fixing the public schools, Powell adds, is not a “partisan issue at all. I think politicians need to stop thinking of it as a partisan issue. It’s an issue of the survival of the country.”
Of course, that’s easy to say, but the fact is that school funding remains a hotly contested issue, especially during an economic crisis. After a summit in Detroit last year, America’s Promise touted a commitment by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to allocate $300 million to a “Small Schools Initiative,” which would create 100 small high schools implementing “proven best practices.” A few weeks ago, the Detroit News ran a story headlined, “State's budget ax hits schools.” The legislature, it said, was jettisoning the Small Schools Initiative, and making deep cuts in early childhood grants, math and science centers, special education and college scholarships.
“It sounds drastic,” says Powell, “but literally the future of our nation is at stake if we do not correct the dropout rate.”
The Obama administration has so far bucked that trend, funneling a total of $100 billion in stimulus funds to schools. But the political class and education experts are hardly united on how to address the dropout crisis. The White House support a project spearheaded by the National Governors’ Association and the standardized testing giants SAT and ACT, to create a uniform national high school curriculum and tests to go with it. Proponents believe higher curriculum standards will benefit poor kids, whose schools often teach junior high level reading and math lessons in the twelfth grade. But critics say that by the time many poor kids enter ninth grade at a dropout factory, they are years behind, with little hope of passing fill-in-the-bubble exams—especially if they are recent immigrants with rudimentary English skills.
Other policy ideas include giving high school students more opportunities for vocational training, with the hope that it would make school more relevant to their financial futures. And a recent report from Northeastern University and the Chicago Alternative Schools Network suggested the federal government provide funding for state level re-enrollment programs, which encourage high school drop-outs to earn a degree by providing them with employment opportunities conditioned on school attendance.
While policy makers debate the details, Powell is focused on finding new ways to talk about the issue. The dropout crisis, she says, “is also a defense issue. The military cannot accept people who are not high school graduates.” Some military installations now have prep schools where young recruits can earn GEDs, but the military is not built to pick up the slack from a failing school system.
Then again, the school system isn’t built to pick up the slack from failing social services. Often, the stories that emerge from the dropout summits highlight the deep and tangled roots of the problems leading kids to quit school. Powell speaks about a meeting in Mississippi, where she heard about a 14-year-old boy named Harley who’d gotten his girlfriend of the same age pregnant. His parents were unemployed, and he wanted to leave school in order to start earning money for his family. “The State Superintendent at the time said, ‘My campaign is to save Harley and all the others like that,” she says.
Hopeless as such situations seem, Powell has also encountered programs that work. The Harlem Children’s Zone, an interconnected web of rigorous schools and social services that support kids from infancy to college, encompasses nearly 100 New York City blocks, and has had amazed social scientists with its successes. The Obama administration is asking Congress for $10 million to replicate the program in other cities—a relatively small amount of money, but a start.
Powell hopes the America’s Promise summits will give people the chance to trade ideas about successful programs. “I grew up in Alabama in segregated schools,” she says. “I have seen the absence of services for most of my life. What is surprising to me often is change that can exist in poor conditions through the education of good teachers and principals.”
Get Involved: The America's Promise Alliance works on drop-out prevention. The Harlem's Children Zone is widely-regarded as one of the most effective educational and anti-poverty programs in the United States.