THE DROPOUT PROBLEM
by Alicia Woodard Green
Like many freshmen, Wanda Kinsey, center, struggled when she first entered high school.
Sue Kinsey spends her days with her dog, Smokey, in a well-kept trailer off a gravel road in the hills of southeastern Kentucky. Kinsey, who is 56, chain smokes, and has a persistent, hacking cough to prove it. She lives below the poverty line, as does her daughter, Elizabeth, who lives down the road. Neither went beyond the eighth grade.
But the two women are hopeful that the next generation of their family will have a brighter future and a better education. At 15, Wanda Kinsey – Sue’s granddaughter and Elizabeth’s niece – is working diligently to maintain that hope, and to break the patterns of teenage pregnancy, poverty and illiteracy that have persisted in her family for decades.
“There’s certain people in my family that just gave up on everything in life,” Wanda says. “And they’ve made nothing out of their self. And I want to be someone that can make something out of myself. Someone that can go somewhere.”
Wanda is a freshman at Corbin High School in Corbin, Kentucky. She is tall, pretty and somehow shy and self-assured at the same time. She is motivated to graduate, in part, by a rebellious streak – she wants to prove to her mother that she can succeed. But she is equally driven by the faith her aunt and grandmother have placed in her. “I want to show my Aunt [Elizabeth] that I can do something for her as, you know, she can do stuff for me too… Because she believes in me.”
But a family’s faith and a teenager’s resolve often aren’t enough to carry at-risk kids from their freshman year in high school to their freshman year in college. Nationally, the number of dropouts has risen steadily, and alarmingly, for the past two decades. And studies show that many of those dropouts end up pregnant, unemployed, or in prison. But the real tragedy, experts say, is that no one knows just how many students drop out each year.
Graduation rates for the nation and individual states have been described as “a joke,” “laughable,” and “scandalous.” In 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the high school graduation rate had reached 85% – an all-time high. But the bureau relied on self-reporting from families – not necessarily reliable data. Another flaw: the report included General Educational Development (GED) Certificates, obtained by passing a test, not graduating.
Several independent studies have pegged the graduation rate much lower – and the dropout rate much higher – than the Census Bureau reported. In 1998, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute sought a simple and straightforward way to measure how many students graduate. He compared the number of eighth graders enrolled in school in 1993 to the number of diplomas awarded four years later. Adjusting for population shifts, Greene found that more than one million students failed to graduate four years later.
Greene’s conclusion: the nationwide graduation rate in 1998 was 71% – 16 percentage points lower than the Census Bureau’s estimate. Other recent studies have found it to be even lower – 68.7, 66.6, 69.6 and 66.1 percent. “We haven’t cared enough as a country to build a data system,” says Kati Haycock, Director of the Education Trust. “Instead we have consoled ourselves. We’ve chosen to think, ‘Well, the Census must be right. So we probably don’t have a big dropout problem after all.’”
Haycock’s organization, an advocacy group for disadvantaged children, found even more misleading graduation rates at the state level. New Mexico, for example, said its graduation rate in 2002-2003 was 89 percent. But the state only counted seniors, ignoring students who dropped out before twelfth grade. North Carolina’s reported rate of 97% is highest in the nation. But officials there only included graduates who received their diplomas in four years. In other words, they didn’t count a single dropout.
Surprisingly, the make-or-break year for about a third of high school students comes quickly – in their first year of high school. Every fall, thousands of ninth graders walk into high school wholly unprepared for what they’ll face – academically and socially. And they fail in extraordinary numbers.
In a 1998 study, Jay Hertzog of Slippery Rock University and Lena Morgan of the State University of West Georgia found that 450 schools failed 25-45% of their ninth grade classes. Gene Bottoms, founder of the reform model High Schools That Work, says he saw schools, particularly in the South, holding freshmen back so the students wouldn’t bring test scores down. “It became very easy to warehouse youngsters in grade nine,” Bottoms says, “because if they took the exam, they were going to look bad in grade ten and eleven. So something called ‘the ninth-grade bulge’ has emerged.”
The “bulge,” a term coined by researcher Walt Haney, refers to ninth grade classes that are larger than eighth grade classes. For example, in a 2001 study Haney found that there were 440,000 more ninth graders than there had been eighth graders the year before – “surely a reflection of the fact that more students nationally were being flunked to repeat grade nine,” Haney writes. The majority were African American and Latino.
But when students are held back, particularly more than once, their chances of academic success grow slim. “If you failed in ninth grade, your chances of finishing high school is only about one out of two,” says Bottoms. “You have a whole host of youths coming to grade nine who are not ready for the higher academic standards that high schools now have.”
The bulge may also explain a trend toward younger dropouts. Thirty years ago, dropouts tended to be juniors and seniors. Today, they’re freshman and sophomores. “This is a significant shift,” writes Paul Barton of the Educational Testing Service, “making dropouts younger and less educated than in the past, and therefore facing more difficulty in getting jobs.”
Wanda Kinsey’s high school in Corbin, Kentucky has the advantage of being in a small, close-knit community. Principal Joyce Phillips has known a lot of the students since elementary school. But the staff faces many of the same challenges as their counterparts in urban high schools. Half the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Few job opportunities exist after graduation. Students often have to be persuaded to plan beyond high school.
Like many freshmen, Wanda struggled. “I was having a rough time with English and math, with everything,” she says. But unlike many schools, Corbin High has a strategy to help ninth graders stay in school. Looking for ways to increase graduation rates and decrease dropouts, Corbin turned to Bottoms’ reform model High Schools That Work in 2001. Bottoms’ team, which serves as a strategy consultant, studied the school, assessed its problems, and suggested solutions. Time and again, experts cite these same strategies to help high schools boost graduation rates and decrease dropouts.
- Focus on the freshmen: Corbin freshmen attend classes in a separate wing of the school, which teachers call the Freshman Center and students call the “Fishbowl.” “[The Freshman Center] is to ease the transition from middle school,” says algebra teacher Kim Hamlin, “and give them a little taste of high school without just throwing them in with all that peer pressure.”
- Hold high expectations for all students: Kati Haycock and Patte Barth write in The Harvard Education Letter, “The single most important thing we can do to help students succeed after high school is to provide a challenging high school curriculum.” Gene Bottoms founded High Schools That Work on that same belief: “Our basic philosophy is that most of the students who we thought could not master the very rigorous academic curriculum could do so.”
- Provide one-on-one attention and extra help: “Most of us come to believe in ourselves when an adult first believes in us,” Bottoms says. “When we started doing this work in high school, there were literally hundreds of thousands of students in high school who belonged to no one.” Bottoms recommends assigning each student an advisor for all four years. “Students describe an advisor like this: ‘They care. They believe in you. They believe that high school matters and they’re not going to turn you loose until you get it.’”
Through such strategies, Corbin teachers identified Wanda’s weaknesses quickly and addressed them. Her grades went from near failing at the beginning of ninth grade, to A’s and B’s at the end. She’s excelled in extracurricular activities, too, chosen to lead the Jr. ROTC’s color guard, a position usually only juniors and seniors attain.
Sue Kinsey worries about Wanda’s future, but hopes her granddaughter’s success continues. If she attends college, “it means her generation will be more successful. She will have her own home if she wants it. After she gets good and started, she can have how many kids she wants. You know, when you can’t get a good job, it’s hard to raise kids.” Wanda, who just one year ago said that her dreams were fading, now hopes to become a psychologist. “I didn’t at all think that I could do it. Sometimes, I kind of gave up. But there’s things that showed me that I can be that person. That I can make it.”