13 things we’d like to hear President Obama say about the dropout epidemic

By Rebekah Richards and Gregg Rosann

President Obama told the nation’s students to work hard and dream big in his annual back-to-school address, delivered Tuesday afternoon from Philadelphia's Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School.
“An education has never been more important,” Obama said. “Nothing will have as great an impact on your success in life as your education. More and more, the kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school. In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you’ll go in life.”

Those are words that every American student needs to hear — again and again. And, in fact, those are words that we all need to hear, because we all share a responsibility for this nation’s educational successes and failures.

Philadelphia was a fitting location for a speech about education, because it is a city of stark contrasts when it comes to educational opportunities. Nearly all graduates of Masterman, an elite, competitive-enrollment public academy, move on to four-year universities. Meanwhile, a large percentage of students in Philly’s other public schools don’t even make it through four years of high school; about a third of the city’s students don’t graduate.

But Philadelphia has also been an epicenter of innovation when it comes to reducing the dropout rate in its public schools. The change has been slow, but it has been noteworthy. And to that end, it’s unfortunate that the president didn’t remark upon the transformation happening in the City of Brotherly Love.

If he had, here are 13 things we wish he would have said in his speech:

Preventing dropouts is only part of the solution.
More than a million students choose to leave school, each year — and most leave for reasons other than bad grades. Any comprehensive — and compassionate — approach to addressing the dropout epidemic should include programs to bring these students back into the educational fold. Students who drop out of school should know that there is always an open door to re-enrollment — and that door needs to lead to programs that address the issues that led to the student’s decision to leave school in the first place.  

Brick and mortar schools are not enough.
Traditional schools still fill a critical role in our education system — and they always will. But the model that works to educate the majority of students doesn’t work for all, and it particularly fails for students in transient families, those who must work to support their families and those who are raising children. Flexibility and innovation are essential to ensuring that every student has the right to a strong education, no matter what their circumstances are.

The dropout epidemic is an economic issue.
High school dropouts cost the nation roughly $70 billion a year in lost tax revenue alone, according to figures from Princeton University. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the total cost to our nation when you include the costs of social welfare programs and incarceration associated with students who fail to graduate. Want to significantly reduce the long-term impact of recessions, like the one we’re in right now? Graduating more students from high school would be one big step toward that goal.

The dropout epidemic is a public safety issue.
We all know that dropouts are far more likely to be incarcerated than those who received their high school diplomas. But did you know that they’re far more likely to be victims of crime, as well? During one four-year period, 94 percent of young murder victims in the city of San Francisco were high school dropouts. That makes addressing the dropout epidemic a mater of life and death.

Traditional standards of discipline are pushing students out of school.
It’s important not to allow one dangerous or disruptive student to negatively affect the educations of many others. But suspensions and expulsions do little to change behavior — and thousands of students are driven from school every year because they fall behind while being punished for their mistakes. Alternative educations programs, including online education, can help keep students on-track for graduation, while behavioral issues are addressed at the same time, in more meaningful ways.

We need to keep track of our students.
Ask 10 officials from the same school district what their district’s dropout rate is and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. It’s way past time for a uniform — and honest — assessment of how many students are graduating from high school on time. Hiding dropouts behind dozens of different “leaver codes” might help make the problem look smaller, but it doesn’t make it smaller. It’s time to own up to our actual completion rates — only then will we know where we stand, and only then will we know in which direction we need to start running.

A GED isn’t enough.
To many, a GED and a high school diploma might look like the same thing. Both documents indicate the attainment of a certain level of educational competence. Both documents qualify a student to apply for enrollment in most of America’s two- and four-year universities. But extensive research shows that students with a GED alone do not fare as well in life as those with a high school diploma. And the widespread availability and perceived “easiness” of the GED test might actually be acting as a siren’s song to restless high school students. While programs that shepherd potential dropouts toward a GED are noble in aim and purpose — and many have seen great successes — the paramount goal should be to help students obtain a diploma.

It’s time to get holistic.
Our country’s lamentable dropout rate isn’t just indicative of a failing educational system — it’s indicative of a failing nation. From public safety to medical care to the economy, every piece of our system maintains a degree of responsibility when it comes to the dropout epidemic. For instance: Teens with the most common type of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are more than twice as likely to drop-out of school or delay graduation than their peers, according to a recent study by the University of California at Davis. That means that finding better ways to treat and manage ADHD is part of the solution.

Students shouldn’t age out of the right to a high school education.
In most states, public funding for secondary education ends before the age of 22. So, with limited exceptions, students who don’t complete their high school studies by then are on their own to find and pay for their education. That’s a sadly inconsistent standard — after all, every state in the nation helps helps pay the way for its resident college students. So long as they are making consistent progress toward their diploma, why should we limit students’ opportunities to succeed with an artificial deadline?

We need to level the playing field.
Over the life of a student’s 13-year public education career, the amount of money invested in their success can vary by tens of thousands of dollars. In some cases, the difference can be attributed to the cost of doing businesses — it’s just more expensive to educate students in some parts of the country than others. But in other cases, it’s a simple matter of priority making — some communities simply invest more money into their students than others. None of our other rights are so significantly affected by geography. You don’t get more freedom of assembly if you live in one part of the country. You don’t get fewer protections against unreasonable search if you live in another. So why should our children’s educations be held hostage to where they live?  

No one has all the answers.
In an earlier speech, President Obama contended that “we know what is working” when it comes to educational reform. That’s only partially true. There is no cookie cutter solution to the dropout epidemic, and many innovative programs are too new to show results, even if the methods in those programs show great promise. Since there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, we should continue to provide — and even expand — opportunities for new initiatives to take root.

Although no one has all the answers, there are some good ones out there.
While it’s important to keep coming up with new ideas about how to get diplomas in the hands of more students, it is equally important to recognize that there have been many successes in this fight. One problem is that the educational community hasn’t been very good about sharing those successes or divining methods to make those successes scalable. (We also need to be honest when our best efforts come upon unforeseen obstacles — and share those stories with others as well; there’s no reason for any of us to bang our heads against the same wall.)

We need to stop beating each other up.
Everyone in this game is playing for the same goal: To give our nation’s students the best education possible. But sometimes, in an effort to advance our own solutions to the problem, we beat up on everyone else. It’s absolutely appropriate to criticize systems that are failing our students. But criticism is one thing; contempt is another. We should all recognize that, in this democracy, we’re all part of the problem and we all have a role in the solution.

Rebekah Richards and Gregg Rosann are co-founders of The American Academy, which works with school districts across the nation to re-enroll dropouts into high school. For more information about the academy and its programs, visit NoDropouts.com