October 12, 2009

Don't Drop Out, but Stay for the Right Reasons

Justin Katz

A "summit" addressing the high-school drop-out rate in Rhode Island has gotten some attention, as the topic certainly deserves. Talk about students' coming to see their teachers as the "enemy" rightly made the Providence Journal article and the WRNI audio report, but it may be that a statement of pro forma outrage from the education commissioner deserves more attention:

Deborah A. Gist, the state's new commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said Thursday she had a disturbing conversation with a group of teachers recently. They told her that many of their students aren't interested in attending college.

"That made me really angry," Gist said at a dropout-prevention summit. "Afterward, I asked nearly every student what they wanted to do after high school and every single child talked about going to college."

Apart from any occupational interest that she might have in encouraging high attendance rates, why should students' lack of attention to college make Ms. Gist "really angry"? Not every career path does, can, or should lead through an expensive few years of higher education, involving hours of effort and thousands of dollars for undesired lessons (whether fluff or culturally significant).

In fact, I'd hypothesize that decades of higher education's being presented as a must-take next step after high school has contributed to dropout rates. If college is a seamless continuation of secondary school, then achieving a diploma at the earlier stage is marginally more significant than not achieving one, and if a student isn't interested in the careers for which they expect college to prepare them, then they've no reason to be interested in an earlier curriculum intended to prepare them for college.

As a society, we have to make the pitch as to why high school graduation is important in its own right, and that will require a straightforward enunciation of the opportunities available thereafter — even if some students might find them adequate or even more attractive than continued time in plastic chairs with bolted-on desks.

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I think that teacher (and a lot of other people) should watch Mike Rowe's TED Talk:


(Sorry, I suck at HTML.)

Posted by: EMT at October 12, 2009 2:16 PM

If we want adolescents to take a real interest in their education, then they must feel like there is some kind of pay off. The truth of the matter is kids see that, for the most part, the jobs available for a high school dropout and those for a high school graduate with no other training are basically the same. If the diploma gets you the same job at Walmart or McDonald's as the person who left school in the 11th grade, why bother finishing? You are just missing out on two years when you could be working.
It is true that not everyone needs to go to college. However, most decent jobs that pay a living wage require some kind of additional training, be it trade school, an apprenticeship, or a specialized job training program. I think the Department of Education should be focusing more effort on expanding vocational programs with post-graduation job placement opportunities, as this might encourage students who do not plan on college to finish school. I've said this before, but I really think more needs to be done to help students at a young age to begin thinking about what they need to do to be successful in life. I taught middle school for 8.5 years and I truly believe middle school is the time to begin working with students on career exploration. My students, who had special needs, were often just biding time until they turned 16 and could drop out because they did not feel like there were any real prospects out there for them. I worked hard to try to get my students to explore different possibilities and the paths necessary to get there. I knew most of my students did not plan to attend college, so rather then push that as the only option, I tried to help them think about how they might plan for life. I think the students appreciated getting straightforward advice on such matters. A few years ago, I ran into a former student who had been a major behavior problem during his middle school years. He had a rough adolescence and had spent some time in training school. When I encountered him at nineteen, however, I was proud to hear that he had straightened out and had a respectable job with a decent salary working for UPS. I did not ask whether he got his diploma or a GED or how he got this particular job (a good question - students need to know about the better jobs out there that do not require college)but I was glad to see him on the path to having a good life, with or without a college education. Isn't that what we should want for all kids? Isn't that what we want to inspire kids to want for themselves? And isn't there some way of putting more of a focus on planning young people for different walks of life, not just those that require a four-year degree?

Posted by: Tabetha at October 12, 2009 5:23 PM

Let's start with the basics, what separates us from the apes is the opposing thumb. That permits us to make and hold tools. Some people really enjoy "making things", sitting about working a spreadsheet is not for them.

The last time I saw some figures, Massachusetts had about 65,000 lawyers and about 9,000 plumbers. On average, who would you guess is making the larger income? Plus, plumbers are not going to be "outsourced". Even union plumbers at about $35.00 per hour, are doing about as well as teachers. Of course they work a longer year.

I know a lot of blue collar guys. While they may not easily discuss the Plantagenet succession, this doesn't mean they are stupid.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 12, 2009 7:01 PM

I don't alway agree with Katz but this time I concur wholeheartedly. College is not for every student. And what is wrongf with trade school? Trade schools should be pushed by guidance counselors.
Career centers of high schools should be in sync with what the state requires to keep colleg students in the state.
The health field is growing leaps and bounds. Not everyone should be going to college to be a doctor but you can go to a trade or technical school and be an X-ray or lab asst. Spending thousands and thousands for college tuition for a job that pays $30-$40 thousand as a yearly salary is ridiculous and yet this is what is happening. Kids are not being directed appropriately. It is a money/profit game for colleges.

Posted by: jo at October 12, 2009 7:33 PM

I think one of the biggest problems with the schools with the older kids is the lack of real life lessons. How do you apply for a job? How do you communicate as an adult, with an adult? How do credit cards work? Checking accounts? Paying bills? How much do things cost?

When I got my first job out of college in 1993, I was making $20,000 and ecstatic with that amount, thinking it was a huge amount of money, as I was used to making $5.35 an hour at random jobs. My parents just said, "Just wait, that's not a lot of money." It wasn't. When you have to start paying rent, electricity, cable, phone, car loan, car insurance, groceries, college loans, there isn't much left each week. This stuff needs to be explained to the kids. They just see food in the fridge a roof over their heads, a car in the driveway and the house is always warm. How things get that way, no idea, it just happens.

Also, it seems there's way too much of an expectation for high school graduates to go on to college. My wife and I have discussed what we would like to do when our daughter graduates from high school. I'd actually prefer that she does NOT go straight to college. I'd like to say "Go to New York City or Boston and figure it out. Wait tables for a year, get an apartment, pay the bills. What do you really want to do?"

I went straight to college out of HS and definitely should not have. College is way too insulated and protected. It really is just 13th through 16th grade. Plus what 18-22 year old really knows what they want to do with their life? Why saddle yourself with $150,000 or more in debt paying for a degree that you might not even use because you change your mind a few years down the road?

Posted by: Patrick at October 13, 2009 9:44 AM


I had the EXACT same reaction when I read that article as you did. And the comments on this thread, particularly jo's and Warrington's are spot on. Nice post guys.

Posted by: Robesspierre at October 13, 2009 12:45 PM
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