Monday, August 31, 2009

Myth of the Drop Out - commentary

The year was 1968; I wrote a column for the Coeur d’ Alene Press in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, concerning the high school drop out rate which was at 25 per cent. Forty years later I read in the Jonesboro Sun that, “One in four children is still dropping out of high school.” Forty years of campaign promises, forty years of increased education budgets, forty years of making education more interesting, more exciting and more fun, the creation of a federal Department of Education and the introduction of technology at a cost of billions and we haven’t put a dent in the problem.

Maybe it is time to drop the myth of the high school drop out which goes something like this: High school drop outs make $271,000 less than high school graduates over a lifetime therefore we must do everything possible to keep kids in school. The success or failure of each student after high school has little to do with a diploma; you have to look somewhere else.

To begin with, the statistic used is the wrong one. Averaged in with the high school graduates are the college graduates, any millionaires, and the billionaires who have a high school diploma.

Here is the way I want to see the statistic averaged: what is the life time income of those with a C average or less verses those who make a B average or more. We expend a lot of effort cajoling at risk students to stay in school. The would be drop out hangs around to practically be given D's and C's just to get them through. But, I think the statistic done my way would show that it makes little difference that they were awarded a diploma.

The success or failure of the high school drop out will depend on why he did it. I think you will find a constellation of problems around the average drop out that leads to his dropping out. It might be drugs, anger management, authority issues, unstable home situation, lack of self discipline, laziness, or any number of others. If these problems are dealt with constructively, the drop out will find a place in the working world and do fine. If these issues are not dealt with, the mere acquisition of a diploma will not mean a thing.

There is also the myth of the high school diploma; because I have one, I'm on my way to success. The value of the high school diploma rests on the honest answer to the question, what is behind my diploma?

I had several students argue with me recently that just getting the diploma was all that mattered. It didn't really make any difference whether they had learned anything. When my son was processing to take his GED, he was reading an article while in the waiting room. He reported that the author, an employer, stated that all other things being equal, he would hire a person with a GED diploma over a regular high school diploma. Why? Because, the author said, you were guaranteed the GED applicant had to have proven a certain knowledge base.

Recently I was lucky enough to get to attend a workshop in Monticello put on by the forestry industry. Part of the workshop included trips to a logging site and to a saw mill. It had been more than 40 years since I had been on a logging site or in a saw mill.

Now, Instead of a half dozen or more men on the logging site, there were only two with two high tech machines. In the saw mill there also were few workers and lots of automation. When I asked the tour guide about the need for a high school diploma to work in the mill or the woods, he said, “even if they have a high school diploma, we're going to test them to see what they know before we hire them.” It is not the diploma that matters, it is what is behind it. Again, the absence or presence of a high school diploma, or even a college degree is no indicator of success.

Do you want to succeed? Forget about diplomas and concentrate on actually learning something. Learn to get up in the morning and get to where you are suppose to be on time. Learn to be responsible and dependable. Learn to be on the job when your employer expects you to be there, and make yourself so valuable to your employer that he cannot afford to let you go. Commit to being a life time learner, whether a diploma is involved or not. These are the important things. But, to continue to spend billions to cajole kids into staying in school when they don’t want to be there appears to be a waste of money.

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