Cracks in the Road to Success
According to a report co-authored by Robert Balfanz, a leading scholar of drop-out rates at Johns Hopkins University, the nation’s high school graduation rate is currently at 78 percent, the highest it’s been since the 1975-1976 academic year when it reached 75 percent. Many officials believe the increase is due to greater competition for jobs within a struggling economy. The national rate jumped from 71.7 percent in 2001 (the year America saw its longest period of economic growth come to an end with the fallout from 9-11 and the collapse of the dot-com bubble) to 78.2 percent in 2010. If the current trend continues, the rate will exceed 90 percent by 2020. But not all of the news is good. The report suggests that these rising numbers could be stalled by the sluggish academic performance and high drop-out rates of disadvantaged students. Students from low-income families are most at risk of dropping out before receiving a diploma. Why are these students lagging behind while others seem to excel? Ironically, the cause behind the lag in at-risk students could be the very reason behind the nation’s current upward trend: the economy.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, financial difficulties are one of the top ten reasons teens drop-out of high school. Students from low-income families are six times more likely to drop out of high school than students from high-income families. These students often quit school in the hopes of gaining employment to help relieve the financial burden only to find themselves stuck in a series of poor paying, dead-end jobs. A lifetime of poor earnings starts an endless cycle that can last for generations. Gina Hernandez, a cashier making minimum wage and mother of two, is a prime example of this. When her father died during her freshmen year of high school and her mother (also a high school drop-out) could no longer support the family on her own, Hernandez quit school to help out. After ten years of lay-offs and dead-end jobs, she is currently working as a cashier at Wal-Mart. She blames her sporadic employment record and stunted job advancement on her lack of education.
A lack of school funding in at-risk areas is another reason behind the trend. Arizona, Nevada, and Utah were the only three states in the country to see drops in graduation rates. School officials attribute this to an $800 million budget cut, most of which has been alleviated by eliminating extracurricular activities. Poorly funded schools have a tendency to stick to generic course curriculums, cutting seemingly superfluous programs while using what little money they have to focus on academics. This emphasis on classwork at the detriment to extracurricular activities may have a devastating effect on student retention. Herbert Marsh, an educational psychologist, found that participation in extracurricular activities, even those “not obviously associated with academic achievement”, led to an increased commitment to school and the Journal of Adolescent Research concurred when they reported in 2003 that extracurricular activity participation was linked to lower rates of dropping out of school. Fewer incentives to stay in school may come at the cost of a higher drop-out rate.
Cutbacks for schools also mean cutbacks in teaching staff. Those teachers lucky enough to avoid the axe are left to deal not only with their own students, but the students of their fallen comrades. Larger classes equate to less attention for problem students. Jennifer Wolfe, a middle school teacher and avid blogger, derided Mitt Romney for defending his stance that smaller class sizes doesn't necessarily equate with better learning in schools by claiming that his proposal would leave her with a bare minimum of 60 seconds with each student, if that. How can we expect students to stay in school when teachers don’t have the time to teach them?
While the current upswing in graduation rates might suggest a brighter future for some of today’s youth, budget cuts and limited face to face interaction between teachers and students in low-income areas will mean a life of slave-wage servitude for the poor and disenfranchised whose numbers are increasing at an alarming rate. Education is often lauded as the road to success. Our nation’s leaders need to take a long, hard look at that road and start investing some money in it before more students fall through the cracks.