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Four Solutions to School Dropouts

For years, educators, parents, and bureaucrats have been talking about America’s high school dropout rate. So many teens simply decide to stop taking classes and do something they feel is more relevant to their lives.

The classic stereotype of a troublemaker who is slow and hates school is too narrow a picture of what’s really happening. Most of these teens get jobs and support a family. A 2006 Gates Foundation study reported that nearly 50% of these dropouts simply found the classwork “boring and irrelevant to their future jobs.” The truth is, sitting in class five days a week doesn’t work for everyone, especially fidgety boys who want to “do” something.

Here’s why we need to solve this school dropout problem. Unemployment is far higher for those without a good education. Today, the national unemployment rate is 8.5%. Among those with a bachelor’s degree, the rate is just 4.2%. Among those who drop out of high school, the number is 13.1%. Ouch. Big difference.

I think the answer is in the middle. Not every student is cut out for a liberal arts degree from college. On the other hand, the higher your education level, the more likely you are to be employed. I believe we must assess student’s strengths/passions and send them to appropriate places to prepare. For instance, in my home state, the State School Superintendent, Dr. John Barge, plans to expand vocational training for teens. Many could begin learning to be welders, carpenters, electricians, and auto mechanics—fields that pay as well as a college-educated career. But, they don’t need a four-year degree…and it’s OK. They’re not failures. They’re simply young adults who found their niche and thrive in it.

Here are some ideas that might just help both our school dropout and unemployment rate:

Expand Options

Each state prepares teachers and high schools to identify students’ strengths and allow them to opt into work-study programs or vocational training. This is working in many states, and students are succeeding in these non-traditional contexts.

Increase the Age of Eligibility

Raise the age at which students can finish school. In nineteen states, they can drop out at 16 years old. Why not require them to stay until 18? This way, they stay in school but move down a suitable track toward their career desires at 16.

Encourage Trade Jobs

Celebrate the most needed jobs in our society and encourage the right students to move in those directions, even if they’re blue-collar jobs. One man said: “We spent so much time celebrating GETTING the corner office, we forget how to build it.”

Foster Connections

Expose students to role-models from career fields that have loads of openings and career opportunities. Often students move in directions they know something about. Put the right people (alum?) in front of them and watch what happens.

I believe we have two major problems: we under-challenge students (we bore them) and we challenge them to move in unsuitable arenas (we misplace them).

What do you think?


  1. Jake Sumner on March 7, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks for offering some practical solutions to this problem! We have to work together to solve this.

  2. allysnews on March 7, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    I think this is an excellent list, but I would add one thing to it. Give them room to breathe. Often, people ask students what they want to be and they reply “I don’t know”; so the adults in the situation just tell them what they should be. 

    Kids drop out of school because they haven’t had room to make their own goals, they’re taking the same classes as everyone else, and the goals teachers give them seem so arbitrary, e.g. graduate high school, get into a decent college. 

    Instead of just making them take tests that say “here’s what we think you’d be good at” why not give them some room to develop tastes of their own. “here’s the library, come back to my office when you find something that sparks your interest.” 

    I did well in high school because I knew it would benefit me later in life and directly impacted my goals. But you have to have some goals before you’re willing to put in the work necessary to achieve them. In the American model of education, it seems like we’re trying to do the opposite. We give students work, and tell them they can figure out why it matters later.

    • Tim Elmore on March 12, 2012 at 8:08 am

      Thanks for the great addition to the list. I agree – helping students connect assignments / work to real-life problems is essential.

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Four Solutions to School Dropouts