Dropout study reveals an alarming problem

Published 12:16 pm Tuesday, July 10, 2007

By Staff
(This editorial originally appearred in the News &Record of Greensboro.)
A new study shows North Carolina to have a huge dropout problem that it has neglected. In a globally competitive economy, such carelessness with human capital can’t be defended.
The study comes from the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research. Its most damning finding is that the state can’t even answer the most rudimentary question about dropouts: How many are there?
According to the best available data, a 2007 Department of Public Instruction report, 68.1 percent of high school students graduate in four years. But what happens to the other 31.9 percent is vague to the point of enigma. A center spokesman, Mebane Whitman, says ‘‘some graduate in five years, some graduate with a certificate’’ but ultimately ‘‘the percentage of dropouts in North Carolina is still unknown.’’
It is known that the largest number of dropouts leave school between ninth and 10th grade, about when it becomes legal to do so — at 16. In an economy that requires greater technical skills than ever, that’s far too early to achieve lasting employment at much above a subsistence level. The study found students drop out because they are pregnant or under economic pressure. Or because they feel the curriculum is irrelevant. No doubt many are unable to keep up, often because of inadequately addressed learning differences.
The study makes four major recommendations: 1) Do research to learn how many are dropping out, who they are and why they leave. 2) Consider making attendance compulsory through age 18. States that have done so have lower dropout rates. 3) Admit curricula designed for the college-bound are irrelevant to many. Create alternatives using service learning, internships, apprenticeships and the like that turn out employable graduates. 4) Have DPI re-evaluate its dropout programs and ask each system to propose local ways to address the issue.
All are worthy suggestions and ought to be embraced, but they miss a crucial piece of the puzzle. Any student who drops out after ninth grade has been in academic trouble long before. If students fall behind in elementary school, saving them in high school can be all but impossible.
We pay lip service to leaving no child behind, but when up to 30 percent don’t finish high school we aren’t really serious about the issue. Yet it is undeniably a problem for all of us. These young people ought to fuel our economic future. Instead, they are at risk of becoming a cost to taxpayers and a sorrow to themselves.