|Originally Aired: June 27, 2006
High School Drop-out Rates Rise
|While the drop-out rate of high school students increases, experts struggle to develop an accurate measure and determine why some students fail to graduate.|
RAY SUAREZ: Three million high school seniors are graduating
this year, but even as they march off the stage, diplomas in hand, educators are worried about the
students not in this picture: the drop-outs.
One of the main reasons teenagers give for quitting school: Their
classes aren't interesting.
EVOYAL PROCTOR, Former Student: I was bored, one. And I had
a lot of things going on in my life at the time, and people telling me that I wasn't going to make it
and all of that, it just got to me. So I just stopped going.
RAY SUAREZ: Evoyal Proctor and Isaac Love both dropped out.
ISAAC LOVE, Former Student: I was in the 11th grade at the
time that I dropped out of high school to pursue employment, and I wanted a car, as, you know, the
average youngster, you know, person would. And so I had gotten a job with janitorial services. And I worked, and
bought me a car, earned money and bought a car.
RAY SUAREZ: But after an accident on the job, Isaac found he
couldn't do manual labor any longer and he didn't have the skills for an office job.
Love and Proctor turned to a program at Catholic Community
Services in Downtown Washington, D.C., that helps students get a general education degree, or GED, the
equivalent of a high school diploma. Both got their GED certificates and plan on applying to college.
ISAAC LOVE: I feel more confident that I can handle anything
an employer would give me, as far as work assignments, and I know that now that I can learn and I can
also be an achiever in the workplace, as well as in my daily life. I feel real great.
RAY SUAREZ: Being an achiever is tough for high school
drop-outs. They're twice as likely as graduates to slip into poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
TEACHER: Is that a good option for you?
RAY SUAREZ: To help keep kids in class, some school
districts have created what they call alternative high schools. Schools like the Landmark
in a mall in Alexandria, Virginia, offer individualized programs and practical skills. It's part of a partnership
with a nonprofit group called Communities in Schools that's helped more than one million at-risk students this
JAMAL KAYANI, Student at Alternative School: You come, you
walk in, you feel comfortable. Everybody kind of talks to you. You just feel like you're at home. So
it's a lot -- it's way more easier to get stuff done.
RAY SUAREZ: Seventeen-year-old Jamal Kayani was on the brink
of leaving high school after a difficult transition from middle school. At his old school, he was an
average student. But at Landmark, he's excelled.
Coming to this program was the turning point, allowing him
JAMAL KAYANI: I didn't want to be another teen statistic in
the drop-out rate, because I've heard and I've seen that this year the rate has gone very high up, to
where kids are just dropping out and trying to get their GED.
RAY SUAREZ: While experts agree the drop-out rate is a
problem -- the Gates Foundation called it a silent epidemic -- they disagree on just how big.
The U.S. Department of Education puts the official drop-out
rate at just below 10 percent, or one out of every 10 students. But research conducted by the Manhattan
Institute found that the number could be as high as one in three.
They found a 70 percent graduation rate overall among
African-Americans and Hispanics; the rates were between 53 percent and 55 percent. The difference comes in
who gets counted. The Manhattan Institute compared the total number of students who enter high school with the
number of students who receive diplomas four years later.
And, yet, another set of numbers comes from studies done by
the Economic Policy Institute. They estimate the overall graduation rate at 82 percent, with between 61
percent and 74 percent of minorities graduating.
One effort to come up with an accurate number of high school
drop-outs has come from the governors of all 50 states. They've pledged to work together to develop a
common method for measuring the drop-out rate.
Finding the right number
RAY SUAREZ: To discuss the magnitude of the high school drop-out problem
and why there are no definitive figures on this, we're joined by the authors of two reports that looked
at that issue.
Larry Mishel is president of the Economic Policy Institute.
And Jay Greene is the head of the education reform
department at the University
of Arkansas. He's also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Jay Greene, let's start with you, with the basic question: Are
there more American kids dropping out than you would be able to know from the published and
announced statistics given by school districts?
JAY GREENE, Manhattan Institute: I think so. I think a
reasonable estimate of the national graduation rate is about 70 percent. And that is higher than officially
published statistics by school districts and by the U.S.
Department of Education.
RAY SUAREZ: And, Larry Mishel, same question. If you just
went by what schools are telling us, is the drop-out rate actually higher?
LAWRENCE MISHEL, Economic Policy Institute: Well, I think
the dropout rate is roughly that nine out of 11 students do graduate -- that's about 82-83 percent -- and
around three out of four minority students.
School districts don't always report things that way, nor
does the national Department of Education. I think it's important to realize that we've made tremendous
progress over time in lifting the graduation rate of all students.
Now, the gap between blacks and whites, whites and
Hispanics, is still far too high, but it's a lot better than it was 40 years ago. For instance, only around
40 percent of blacks completed high school with a diploma or an equivalency certificate in the early 1960s,
and now the completion rate is double that.
So we've made tremendous progress, but we still have a ways
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Greene, do you agree that we've made
tremendous progress, even if you two gentlemen may disagree on the numbers?
JAY GREENE: I actually don't think we've made much progress
over the last three decades. If you simply look at the ratio of the number of diplomas awarded to the
17-year-old population, according to the census, we've had a graduation rate nationwide of about 70 percent for
We hit actually a peak in national graduation rates in 1979
at 76 percent, and now it's slipped down to about 70 percent. There were 2.7 million high school
diplomas awarded in 2003 by public high schools. And, according to the census, there were about four million kids
who could have been in that cohort to graduate, so about 70 percent.
An accurate formula
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dr. Mishel, why is it so hard to get
everybody on the same page and come up with a number that both reflects reality and everybody can agree
on? A certain cohort of kids marches through the front door in the ninth grade. Some number less than that marches
out in the 12th. How come it's so hard to get an accurate number?
LARRY MISHEL: Well, it's hard because schools only report
how many students are in ninth grade and then how many diplomas are granted every year. We don't know how
many students actually enter ninth grade for the first time because many students are retained and repeat.
And we don't know, of the diplomas that are granted, whether
they are for any particular cohort or class.
So we can't really
match how many people walked in and how many people walked out. And we don't
know for any particular school or school district, really, how many
people transferred in or transferred out.
I know from national data, which follows students over time
-- so I don't have to worry about how many people started, how many people transfer in, transfer out --
that the graduation rate is around 82, 83 percent, and three out of four for minorities.
We know that, at the national level, where we really have a
problem is: Do we have any data at the local school district or school level that can tell us graduation
rates? The answer is we don't really have much going there, and I fear we won't for quite a long time.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Greene, how do you answer that? How
do you come up with a number that works for all the people who need to know?
JAY GREENE: Well, I think it's relatively easy to figure out
what the national graduation rate must look like, because, again, while we don't know precisely how many
enter ninth grade every year, we have a pretty good idea of how many are in the age cohort that ought to be
graduating from census figures.
And we also know how many diplomas are awarded pretty well. And
so, for the figure to be 82 percent, as Dr. Mishel says, there would have to be a half-million more
diplomas awarded than are actually reported by public schools. And so we know it has to be less than that.
Now, I think Dr. Mishel is entirely right that it's hard for
us to know it with precision at an individual school level or school district level because
there we don't have the same reliable information about how many students enter ninth grade for the first time, but
we can still come up with ballpark estimates that will be roughly accurate.
Who do we count?
RAY SUAREZ: Should districts be able to count someone who
gets a GED -- years down the road -- be able to count someone who gets a diploma in five or six years as
a successfully educated student?
LARRY MISHEL: Well, I think we ought to have graduation
measures that show all the different ways of doing it, how many people got a diploma on time, how many
people got it from five or six years, how many people got a GED.
We need to know all those different things. I think in some
communities, I don't think we ought to have a lot of pressure that it has to be actually on time. I
think sometimes students struggle. We actually retain them to make sure that they covered the ninth grade
material, so we should give them five years to graduate.
But if we're really going to hold schools accountable, then
we really need to give them the resources to develop the statistical capacity, and I don't think anyone
is really talking about that right now.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, is it fair to say that you
would favor in your studies a more restrictive measure so that the school numbers, announced numbers, might
reflect your research more closely?
JAY GREENE: Well, I think the headline -- I agree with Dr.
Mishel that we ought to have multiple measures of graduation rates. But I do think that the headline
number ought to focus on students who receive a regular high school diploma and not include GED recipients
for a few reasons.
One is that GED recipients don't have the same life outcomes
as regular graduates. They have life outcomes that look very much like drop-outs, and so we
wouldn't want to combine them with regular graduates.
Also, GED recipients, properly speaking, are drop-outs from
the high school system who later earn a certificate, and so we wouldn't want to credit them to the
school from which they dropped out.
So I think there are some good reasons to focus on a
headline number, which would be the regular high school graduation rate, and I also entirely agree with Dr.
Mishel that the resources that schools have to compute this accurately are lacking. And their motivation to count
it accurately is also lacking.
RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Mishel, a quick response?
LARRY MISHEL: Yes, I undertook research in this area because
I was worried by people claiming that only half the minority students were graduating. In fact, I found
that three out of four are graduating with a regular diploma, and half of those who would be considered
drop-out actually get a GED, which allows them to go to college, go into the military or other training, and that
these completion rates have actually grown.
So I think it is important to keep track of what schools do,
but we also -- we're a country of second chances, and we have second-chance systems. We need to be
able to provide them. I think we should not to put down a GED. Sometimes that's a good alternative. I think we
would prefer that most kids get a diploma, because that is going to be better for them in the long run.
But a lot of people get a GED, go into the military, and do
very well, and maybe one will be president some day.
RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Mishel, Professor Greene, thank you, both.