GOP Presidential Debate Ignores Economic Elephant in Room: High School Dropouts

12 Oct

Conservative scholars and candidates have continually missed opportunities to offer constructive low-cost solutions to the high school dropout epidemic. This was especially true at last night’s GOP presidential debate on the economy and jobs at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where a review of the transcript reveals that the words “education,” “dropouts” and “learning” were not mentioned once. While the candidates were busy discussing Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 Tax Plan, they were overlooking how dropouts are a huge drain on tax revenues. Moreover, not one candidate made the obvious connection between an improved economy and ending the dropout epidemic.

Yet, in fact, we can actually balance the federal budget, add millions of jobs, and grow the economy by trillions of dollars over the next several years without spending one additional nickel if we at long last  deal with this economic elephant in the American living room. The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that every year 1.2 million high school students do not graduate with their peers. 30% never graduate high school at all. According to the Alliance’s most recent report, high school dropouts are far more likely to be a drain on the economy. They spend far more time in jail and prison. They depend far more on welfare throughout their lives. Most important, they barely earn a living wage.

According to the Alliance (using 2006 U.S. Census figures), “the average annual income for a high school dropout in 2005 was $17,299, compared to $26,933 for a high school graduate, a difference of $9,634.”  The discrepancy grows even wider between a high school dropout and a college graduate, who typically earns, according to the 2006 U.S. Census, $52,671 a year, or three times more on average than a high school dropout does.

According to research by Princeton Economics Professor Cecilia Rouse, over the course of his or her lifetime, each high school dropout costs this country approximately $260,000. When you consider that dropouts are 68% more likely to rely on public assistance and 20% more likely to engage in violent crimes, and that 75% of crimes nationally are committed by high school dropouts, and the vast majority of young murder victims are also  dropouts (in San Francisco alone, the figure is 94%), you see the connection between high school graduation rates and public expenditures on law enforcement, prisons, health care, welfare, childcare, and more.

According to Professor Rouse, if each of these dropouts, instead, graduated high school, “the net economic benefit to the public purse” would be “$127,000 per student.” Rouse and her fellow researchers arrive at this figure from higher government tax revenues per graduate, “and reduced costs of public health, of crime and justice, and in welfare payments.”

Republican Presidential Debate at Dartmouth College

Extrapolating from Rouse’s analysis, and assuming current rates of government spending, I calculate that if we could raise the high school graduation rate in the U.S. from the current 70% to near 100%, over just a ten-year period we could meet almost every reasonable demand of the Occupy Wall Street crowd, appease the Tea Party diehards with an annual balanced budget (without raising taxes), and warm NeoCon hearts by maintaining our current levels of defense spending. I achieve this result by merely multiplying twelve million dropouts (1.2 million a year over a decade) by $127,000.

But the savings will be far greater, since the de facto dropout rate is undoubtedly much higher than what the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates. First, complicated “leaver codes” obfuscate the epidemic. Secondly, several studies indicate that increasingly easy G.E.D. courses and examinations are far less rigorous than attending regular high school, and, thus, don’t properly prepare students for college or the workforce. Studies show that 15% of G.E.D. recipients who went to college earned a degree, compared to 65% of students who went on to college with a high school diploma. Those with G.E.D.’s historically perform worse economically than those with a bona fide regular high school diploma, who are more likely to be chosen for entry-level positions than G.E.D. recipients.

Also, in our corrupt system of adult education for students needing just a few credits to graduate high school, instructors are routinely informed by administrators that they must give students a score of “IP” (“In Progress”), instead of a failing grade (which, according to several teaching sources, most of these students deserve), so that the school administrators do not have to record a “dropout.” Finally, as the New York Times reported in 2006,  ”Federal data tend to understate dropout rates among the poor, in part because imprisoned youths are not counted.”

Because of these reasons and more, for the past decade I’ve crusaded to make high school dropouts, particularly inner city dropouts, the number one policy issue facing the United States. According to the above New York Times article, “in the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school.” My documentary, “Crotty’s Kids,” highlights a series of cost-effective ways to solve the inner city dropout epidemic. These solutions include adult male mentoring and rigorous academic sports, such as high-speed policy debate andextemporaneous speaking.

Meanwhile, liberal scholars eagerly and routinely call for far more expensive big-government solutions, such as dramatically extending the deadline for when one’s secondary education funding is cut off, increasing teacher pay, or increasing funding for child-parent centers. In addition, affirmative action apologists call for  ”culturally responsive” programs that make at-risk youth feel “less bored” in the classroom, but which also “dumb down” the educational experience by de-emphasizing reliable benchmarks, such as memorization, critical thinking, composition, math, and, yes, test-taking.

Unfortunately, except in isolated, anecdotal, and largely un-scalable cases, these and other costly “educational interventions” have proven ineffective in dramatically moving the dropout needle. Even Bill Gates, who has donated $5 billion over ten years to improving inner city education, has finally, and reluctantly, acknowledged that the ultimate solution to the dropout epidemic does not necessarily rest in increased funding (whether public or private) for the panoply of trendy top-down policy initiatives, such as improved teacher and principal training and performance review, more technologically advanced schools, single-sex institutions, school uniforms, longer school days, smaller classroom size, smaller school size, and more social workers to help with problem families. Nor does a rising economic tide lift all boats, as the 90s economic boom proved (a time when the U.S. dropout rate spiked dramatically).

Instead, Mr. Gates, along with increasing numbers of education scholars are coming to understand that the root cause of our general education decline, and the inner city dropout epidemic in particular, is cultural. Young people who grow up in homes and communities (of whatever stripe) where a primacy is placed on education invariably graduate high school.

So, how does one create this culture of educational expectation and excellence? A carrot-and-stick approach seems needed and promising. The stick of penalties, where parents are fined if their child is absent from high school, or fails to get passing marks, has worked in several nations. Denying drivers licenses would be a next logical step. We could combine such sticks with the carrot of making high school education more practical (e.g., expanding vocational tech) and flexible, such as providing online education for students expelled from brick-and-mortar schools or whose parents are on the move. Online education has been empirically proven to be far cheaper per pupil than putting a child, especially a recalcitrant one, in a physical classroom.

Also, many schools are finding that summer home visits by school staff and even fellow students are moving more struggling learners into academic support programs. We could combine this nurturing carrot with the stick of making classrooms more rigorous. The San Jose Unified School Districtapplied a college prep curriculum to all students under its purview, and found that dropout rates declined from 21.5% to 13.3%.

Finally, we could apply the techniques that worked for law enforcement in cities like New York City and Los Angeles. This would mean a combination of zero tolerance (e.g., the broken windows theory of criminologist James Q. Wilson applied to dropouts), more honest, transparent, and comprehensive record-keeping on dropouts, more detailed profiling of likely dropouts, and daily monitoring of dropout statistics by city neighborhood, so that school districts can identify clusters of individuals at risk of dropping out in real time and when there is still time for effective intervention.

Armed with this up-to-the-minute data on dropouts or those at risk of dropping out, schools and school districts then can assign one or more dropout specialists to bring dropouts back into the educational fold. This is precisely the “re-enrollment” strategy used by telecommunication companies, media companies, and other high-profile consumer product and service corporations to great effect anytime one tries to cancel a service. Just as we reward corporate salespeople for successful customer retention, we need to reward school districts and re-enrollment contractors for not only bringing dropouts back into the classroom, but, by using the principles of positive deviance, helping them grasp the skills necessary for test-validated graduation.

But all these changes will be for naught unless there is a dramatic change in attitude and approach at the very top, with a genuine “Education President” and a hard-nosed Education Secretary, who together usher in a zero tolerance policy for dropouts and for any administrative shenanigans that over up the extent of the problem in the interest of saving face. Currently, Mr. Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are throwing billions of dollars around for Race to the Top competitions, but they aren’t appreciably moving the needle on the issue that matters most to the future economic well-being of this nation: dropouts.

A welter of evidence now indicates that if they applied a man-on-the-moon effort to just this one specific and pernicious problem, a lot of their current headaches related to budget deficits, tax revenues, health care, and the lack of a trained blue and white collar workforce to fill the 3.2 million jobs that go unfilled in this country every day would dissipate.


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