Time Magazine's "Dropout Nation"
In the middle of April, Time Magazine ran a cover story called "Dropout Nation." Nathan Thornburgh wrote the article, and he claimed that thirty percent of America’s high school students end up dropping out of high school. There is little doubt that most people reading this would wrongly assume that this is just another failure of public education.
First of all, while there are areas in the nation where the dropout rate is high, the claim that the overall total is thirty percent is dubious. What makes me want to scream, however, especially at this time of year, is the message sent in the article that when a student drops out, it is actually the school’s fault.
Thornburgh interviewed three dropouts from past and present generations, and (Surprise, surprise!) all three indicated that their decisions to drop out were the fault of their schools in some way. One woman, who is now twenty-eight years old, spent much of her high school career skipping classes. She blames her dropping out on a frustrated administrator who finally asked her, "Why don’t you just quit school?" Now the young woman says that she wonders what would have happened if someone had asked her to stay. I guess we are supposed to assume that she would have turned around and become a model student if only somebody in that nasty school system would have cared. I say, "Good for that administrator!"
Another young woman, who recently dropped out, seemed to blame it on the cheerleaders in the school because they weren’t nice to her. Her mother, who also dropped out, blamed her own decision on that all-time popular favorite—the school’s indifference. Why am I not shocked that none of the three dropouts are willing to take full responsibility for their own actions and decisions?
Let’s face it--dropouts are usually non-performers. The Time article says that dropouts rarely report being overwhelmed academically, and that strikes me as true. When kids drop out it’s rarely because they CAN’T do the work; it’s because they simply WON’T do it. Our public schools invest more time, attention, and money on kids like them than anyone else. Most of the letters and phone calls home and meetings we have after school involve them. We have special education programs, 504 plans, counselors, school social workers and probation officers; and we don’t have all these things because someone decided the honor roll students needed extra help. In the classroom we’ve tried having basic classes, we’ve tried mainstreaming, and we’ve tried various new teaching methods—some of them idiotic—in an effort to bring the non-performers along. So please don’t tell me that we have dropouts because public schools are indifferent.
Time’s approach to our "dropout crisis" is typical of the way our society has approached all educational problems involving students who don’t perform. We blame everyone except the non-performers. For some reason, we have decided to treat the non-performers in our schools as victims. If they are victims, they are certainly not victims of our public education system. In many cases they are victims of poor parenting, in some cases they are victims of the bad influence of the friends that they have chosen, and in others they are simply victims of their own lousy decisions.
Public schools should welcome kids of all ability levels who really want to get an education. They should welcome kids with legitimate learning and emotional disabilities, and they should do everything they can to help them as long as those kids show a desire to learn and to be successful. Schools should also welcome back dropouts who have had an honest change of heart like one young man portrayed in Time’s story. But when a student has made up his mind that education has nothing that he wants, there’s not much we can do for him.
There should be real efforts made to turn potential dropouts around, and public schools do that. But for some kids there is a time when it becomes clear that nothing good can happen from their being in school, and they actually become detriments to their classmates’ education. When that happens, the school shouldn’t be blamed, and the student shouldn’t be encouraged to stay. In fact, if we really want to improve public education, when a student like this doesn't make the decision to leave school on his own, the school should be able to make that decision for him.