Dropout Factories: 1 in 10 American High Schools
It’s a nickname no principal could be proud of: “Dropout Factory,” a high school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year. That description fits more than one in 10 high schools across America.
“If you’re born in a neighborhood or town where the only high school is one where graduation is not the norm, how is this living in the land of equal opportunity?” asks Bob Balfanz, the Johns Hopkins researcher who coined the term “dropout factory.”
So long as the drop-outs are voluntary, it’s unclear how “opportunity” is implicated. Perhaps twenty percent of the people who started my senior year with me failed to graduate; I don’t recall feeling persecuted as a result.
The highest concentration of dropout factories is in large cities or high-poverty rural areas in the South and Southwest. Most have high proportions of minority students. These schools are tougher to turn around because their students face challenges well beyond the academic ones — the need to work as well as go to school, for example, or a need for social services. Utah, which has low poverty rates and fewer minorities than most states, is the only state without a dropout factory. Florida and South Carolina have the highest percentages.
That’s not really an education issue, per se. Surely, it’s not the school’s fault if students have bad home lives or need to quit school to get a job. Nor is it clear how it impacts the students who stay; after all, Florida and South Carolina have some excellent universities and seem to be able to fill them year after year.
“Part of the problem we’ve had here is, we live in a state that culturally and traditionally has not valued a high school education,” said Jim Foster, a spokesman for the South Carolina department of education. He noted that residents in that state previously could get good jobs in textile mills without a high school degree, but that those jobs are gone today.
Presumably, people will figure this out in short order, no?
We need to disaggregate the problems here: There are bad schools out there which are incompetently run, unsafe, or otherwise faill to prepare students for life after graduation. This is an educational problem with an educational solution. We also have poverty. While somewhat related to education, to be sure, it’s mostly a social-cultural and economic problem.
The nexus is that bad schools are often in bad neighborhoods, where social breakdown, lack of positive adult role models, and a low tax base make it difficult to adequately fund education and attract good teachers and parents do a poor job of prioritizing their children’s education. Given that we haven’t the slightest clue as to how to fix the bad neighborhoods, it would seem that the next best solution — and certainly the fastest — would be to get the kids out of the bad schools.
Some sort of voucher system might help in this regard but it’s not a hundred percent solution. It’s not practical if bad neighborhoods are clustered. Nor will it much matter if the parent(s) don’t care about their kids’ education.