This month, hundreds of thousands of teenagers will graduate from high school. Their relatives will be proud - and maybe relieved - that these young adults have finished school and received diplomas. But what about those who don't graduate? We call them dropouts, frequently refuse them jobs, and hope that they don't haunt our jails in a few years.
Dropping out is the shadow of high school graduation, and few principals will talk about dropouts when they can point to successful students. Public high school principals face a dilemma with the existence of dropouts. One of the six goals of official U.S. education policy is increased high school graduation, but a diploma is also supposed to "mean something," as President Clinton has said. Ironically, the only way for a diploma to have value is for some to drop out. High schools are thus criticized for having both too many and two few dropouts. It's an unenviable trap and the focus of my research.
High schools weren't always expected to teach all teenagers. A century ago, a minority of students attended high schools, and only a select fraction graduated. Because graduation was so rare, few stigmatized those without diplomas as "dropouts."
Over the first half of this century, graduation became much more common. One cause was the elimination of full-time jobs for teenagers. At the turn of the century, teenagers commonly worked side-by-side with adults. By 1960, full-time child labor was largely unknown. Where did teenagers go when they couldn't work? They stayed in school until they were older. In fact, the only time before 1950 when high school enrollment dropped was during World War II labor shortages.
A second cause of increasing graduation was the economic value of a high school diploma. The first graduates of public high schools had an advantage over their peers because so few teenagers could claim to have a diploma of any kind. That advantage in obtaining employment has continued for those earning diplomas. These two factors led to increasing high school enrollment and graduation so that by 1950, about half of all young adults received high school diplomas.
As graduation became common, it also became expected. Educators generally welcomed increasing high school enrollment. A high school diploma became necessary to get a job. A stereotype, and a word to depict it, became linked with those who didn't meet the new expectation: dropout. The stereotype suggested that what separated dropouts from graduates were character flaws - personal traits of someone who could not adjust to high school and who was too ignorant to understand the consequences of leaving school.
Few realize that we inherited our fear of dropouts from that 1960s stereotype. Concerns about school attendance and the purpose of schooling had long been a part of educational debates. Yet the definition of the dropout problem was new, and - unlike earlier discussions - implied that high schools should be comprehensive.
High schools today are struggling with being selective and comprehensive at the same time. It's an impossible task, created by high schools' own success in becoming a mass institution. We don't have to accept the conventional wisdom created over 30 years ago. It is not appropriate to expect high schools to eliminate poverty or crime. A better test would be fairness: does everyone have a reasonable opportunity to learn? Poverty still makes a difference in who graduates. That - not the absolute number of graduates or dropouts - is the real dropout problem.
Written by: vanderbilt.edu
13 September 2001