With varying degrees of success around the country, drop-out rate reduction has made or broke careers of leaders in urban districts. Generally though, it appears the dropout rates are decreasing, or, more positively graduation rates are increasing. This is good, right? We are keeping kids in school, keeping them off the streets, giving them a chance, increasing their statistical likelihood of success in life, right?
I’m not always so sure. What happens to a student who we have kept in school, a former dropout risk, once she graduates? Who knows? Really no one is keeping great data on this stuff, and those who are keeping great data are isolated in such a way, school-by-school, teacher-by-teacher, that we can’t draw any meaningful conclusions about what staying in school really does for our kids. With the employment rate stagnant, good manufacturing jobs gone, retail employers refusing to provide benefits or pay a living wage, and college success rates intolerably low, our high school graduates, particularly those not immediately college bound, are armed with great statistical potential for success for not being a dropout get to enter the real world, and struggle at colleges not built to support them (forcing them to take not-for-credit, yet still pricey developmental coursework all without the network of support offered by staff at high schools), or struggle to find jobs upon which they can support the jobs they are trying to launch. What a slap in the face! The truth of the matter for many students, those from urban and rural communities that built schools around jobs that no longer exist, is students leaving with a high school diploma, unless immediately prepared for college, might as well not be leaving with a high school diploma, because the sub-living-wage job available to them will not be enough to support them with room and board, night classes, and transportation let alone the social life of an 18-year-old.
So perhaps we are advocating for the wrong thing, or putting the cart before the horse. If we are not preparing kids for college (admit it, we aren’t because we spend all of our time testing them and teaching them with methods that they won’t see in college for better or for worse), and we are preparing them for yesterday’s workforce, then keeping our kids in school until graduation is serving the singular purpose of delaying the inevitable, a life of struggle. As education workers, we must advocate on a larger scale for the futures of our students. We must oppose efforts by Sam Walton’s family’s line of big box retail stores to refuse living wages and benefits to workers. We must oppose factory closings. We must oppose for-profit junior colleges and trade schools that take our kids’ money out of high school. We must oppose political representation that supports the interests of developers and investors before supporting the interest of our children and their future. If we are not doing these things, the same as if we are not preparing our students adequately for the challenges of college, then we are setting our students up for failure, and our efforts to reduce the dropout rate might be the only comfort we can get in the face of our failure to stand up and fight for the larger social and labor policies that our students really needed.