High school dropouts: Should we let them go?

New York high school
In this 2006 file photo, a group of students at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, listen to a lecture on the global economy by Queen Rania of Jordan.
Handout/Getty Images

During a Friday Roundtable discussion last month, former Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell theorized on what could be done to tackle the number of high school dropouts, especially minorities in inner-city schools. Bell's idea: Let them go.

In other words, if a kid is failing and truly doesn't want to be in school, let them drop out. The money saved from not having to keep these children in school could be funneled back into the system via higher teacher salaries and more focused learning for the kids who want to be there. Students will return when they are ready to learn, he said.

Bell returned to the Daily Circuit Monday to participate in a broader discussion about how best to address the dropout issue.

"My comment was really in the context of a broader concern that I have which I mentioned at that time, which is that there is no example of a successful urban education system any place in the United States over the past 60 years," Bell said on The Daily Circuit Monday. "It struck me that perhaps we should take some of the resources we spend trying to keep people in the system that they aren't ready for or don't want to be in, and really reallocate those dollars to maybe some of the remedial work in community colleges, maybe drop the tuition or make community colleges free."

In the United States, 28 percent of students don't graduate from high school. But the gap is stark between races: While 80 percent of white and Asian students graduate, only 55 percent of black and Hispanic students get a high school diploma. That adds up to 1.3 million students a year.

And many students who do graduate from high school aren't ready for post-secondary learning. About 38 percent of Minnesota high school graduates need remedial classes in college and 92 percent of black graduates need remedial work.

Susan Bowles Therriault, senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, said she agrees with Bell on the need to reallocate funds. But students need help earlier rather than later, she said.

"It's not a single point in time; it's a process," she said. "It's a process that can start in kindergarten... I do think it's important to start looking at the progression of disengagement among these students early... My concern about just letting these kids go, especially since there's disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic students among these people who would be just let go out of the system, is that maybe it's the system that's not really addressing their needs early enough."

A caller from Minneapolis said she dropped out of high school when she was 17. She eventually returned to school and now has a Master's degree. But she said it was hard to get back into the academic system once she left.

"The thing she said that was quite interesting is she learned that it was a mistake," Bell said. "There was an event in her life. Many people go back, and she went back. There was a degree of motivation that existed in her. I'm not sure that we know how to instill that always. I want to catch that person; I want to reach high-risk motivated kids. I want to find the intersection between high-risk and motivated kids. If we just find high-risk kids but they're not motivated, I think we're going to waste a ton of money."

Bell said it's important for communities to reach out to young people stuck in minimum wage jobs, where they might have realized they were in a dead-end job struggling to make ends meet.

Therriault said it might be too hard for many people at that stage in their life.

"When you're working in a minimum wage job, it's very difficult to find the time because you have to put in the number of hours to be able to survive," she said. "I guess I'd be more open to it if you wanted to spend money and give people some kind of cost of living supplement, but I really still think the access would be limited just because people need to make a certain amount of money to make sure they have food and shelter."

Karen Stout, research associate with the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota, also joined the discussion. She works on early intervention and warning systems, including Check and Connect that identifies students needing help.

"We believe it's our job as educators to create that motivation in students," she said. "That, yes, some students are marginalized, they're disengaged in school, it starts early the way Susan said. What we try to do with Check and Connect with the mentor, who is the lynchpin of the program, is to bring that student back to being motivated for school and for learning."

Should we just let high school dropouts drop out? Comment on the blog.

MPR News' Marc Sanchez contributed to this report.

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