Dropout Nation (Warning: this is a long post…)
Time magazine has a cover story this week called “Dropout Nation,” which talks about this national problem through the lens of one small town known as Shelbyville, Indiana. The magazine did a tie-in on the piece with the Oprah Winfrey show. That means I got a double dose of Dropout Nation and Shelbyville during my daily 4pm jog on the treadmill in front of the TV yesterday.
Anyway, all these photos and camera shots of the bleak Indiana landscape are giving me one main thought. I am so grateful that I am no longer in middle or high school. Time mentions a scene from the cafeteria where “like high schoolers everywhere, they have arranged themselves by type: jocks, preps, cheerleaders, dorks, punks and gamers, all with tables of their own.”
One young woman in the story, Susan, “an honors student her freshman year,” rebels against the scene. “The social cauldron of high school weighed on her. She didn’t get along with the cheerleaders on the yearbook staff. And her avid interest in Stephen King novels and TV shows about forensics earned her a false reputation, she says, as a glum goth girl. So she started ditching class, barreling through the Indiana countryside alone in her Dodge Neon, blasting her favorite song, The Ghost of You, by My Chemical Romance … For her, sitting in a classroom biting her tongue and waiting to graduate when college wasn’t necessarily in her future was a form of inaction. Working, saving money, starting her adult life – that was taking the initiative.”
Oh dear. Substitute Alanis Morissette for the band Susan likes and you could get a good snapshot of my feelings during early adolescence. Mavis Leno (wife of Jay) has a great quote I found once that goes something like “I could be happy my whole life knowing I will never have to live through middle school again.” Beautiful, brilliant Mavis! If she hated it, what hope is there for the rest of us? The one difference between Susan and me is that I was pretty sure college would be better. I also transferred for my last two years of high school to the Indiana Academy, a school for gifted students, that made me stretch my mind and discover that one’s teen years didn’t have to be a complete waste of time.
But back to Dropout Nation. The Time article and Oprah show treatment made it clear that the bleakness of the Indiana landscape is echoed in the bleakness of a lot of high school kids’ lives. The nation’s high drop-out rate (about 1 in 3 kids who start high school won’t finish in 4-5 years) is the result.
Let’s get one bad idea out of the way. The bulk of kids who drop out do not do so because high school is too tough. Time reports that 88% of dropouts received passing grades. “Asked to name the reasons they had left school, more respondents named boredom than struggles with course work.” Indeed, in Genius Denied, the Davidsons and I report that studies find about 20% of high school dropouts actually test in the gifted
Kids drop out because they find that high school is neither challenging nor relevant. Time dances around a response to this, but I’d wager that for the bulk of American kids, these dropouts are absolutely right.
First, the lack-of-challenge part: Oprah did one heart-wrenching segment on a young woman who was the valedictorian of her Tennessee high school. She went to a state university, and floundered in her classes. She was bright but her school demanded little of her to earn those top grades. The cameras also followed a group of bright youngsters from a Chicago school as they toured well-to-do Naperville, Illinois’s high school. One young woman sat in on a trigonometry class and said she thought the teacher was speaking a different language.
The show didn’t dwell long on these issues. It’s easier to make a big deal about the fact that Naperville had a nicer weight room than the Chicago school. But physical facilities are one thing. The lack of challenge to these kids’ brains is the real rotting that’s going on. It wasn’t until I attended the Indiana Academy that I discovered what it was like to study for a test and work hard for my grades. About 40% of college kids require remedial classes to get up to standard. Clearly, a big chunk of young people aren’t pushing their brains – or having them pushed.
Second, high schools were designed for the industrial economy. That economy has almost disappeared. Few people move with a whistle now, but high school students still change classes with a bell. High school kids learn things in discrete units called subjects, just as factory workers do discrete tasks. But my work isn’t divided into subjects. The other day, I was writing a book chapter that delved into calculus (briefly). Combining language arts and math – is that even allowed?
Furthermore, one of the reasons employers have always valued a high school diploma over a GED is that a high school diploma shows you’ll stick with the system. You’ll get up every morning and go somewhere you’re supposed to, and work with the people you’re assigned to, whether you like it or not.
Even that work format is changing. I got up every morning and went somewhere I was supposed to for one year out of college. Then I decided to strike out on my own. This morning I got up at 6:30 am, but yesterday morning I didn’t haul myself out of bed until 9:30am. I just got out of my pajamas a few minutes ago (at 10:30 am EST). If I want to go watch TV, I can, or make myself a snack. All that matters is that the work gets done. True, most workers don’t have this kind of freedom, but there are 10.3 million independent contractors in the US, and there are about 18 million “non-employer businesses” (meaning firms owned, run and operated by one person). These numbers have skyrocketed in recent years. We live how we want for the most part. There is absolutely nothing in the high school curriculum or format that would prepare you for a free agent life, or even the corporate life of most knowledge workers.
I don’t know how to change that. As I’ve said in my other blog posts, attempts to make school more flexible tend to wind up lowering standards, because most people work hardest for external rewards. Homeschooling comes closest to the kind of work many knowledge workers will do with their lives, but it’s hardly a large scale solution. We need more brilliant teachers, more high standards, more links between the workplace and school. We need more rigorous independent projects, more chances to audit community college courses, and more individualized curriculum. I’ll explore some more ideas in upcoming blog posts.
But what’s saddest is that the kids who most realize the irrelevance and lack of challenge in high school are the ones who pay the highest price because of that realization. If you lack a high school diploma, you lose most meaningful job opportunities, and you have very little chance of ever going to college. Because of this, some states are raising the age at which you’re allowed to drop out of high school. It’s an easy solution – but changing the irrelevance and lack of challenge would go a lot farther to restoring America’s competitiveness.