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:
- Each state prepare 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.
- Raise the age in 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.
- 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.”
- 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).