What's the Problem with Dropping Out?


High school graduates all! Southwire's Stu Thorn at left.

America's Promise Alliance, an education-for-the-children foundation set up in the 1990s by Colin and Alma Powell, held its 2012 summit, "Building a GradNation," in my DC hotel this week. The featured guests included a range of CEOs, school apparatchiks, politicians, the Powells, George Lucas, and plenty of specimens of a type that has mercifully become extinct almost everywhere except Washington, DC: pear-shaped men under 30 who still rock the blue-blazer/ecru slacks/buttondown shirt look. 

There have been panels on "transforming" public schools, using early education to "put our children on the path to success" and other topics, as well as a screening of Lee Hirsch's ubiquitous new documentary Bully. (You need to spend some time around a school these days to understand how out of hand the hysteria over bullying – which administrators are more interested in talking about than in solving when it actually comes up – has become.) 

I've been stalking the conference hoping to party with George Lucas, and while that didn't work out, I'm struck by how out of sympathy I am with the APA's seemingly unobjectionable goals. As Alma Powell writes in her letter to attendees: 

Together we have accomplished so much. High school graduation rates continue to improve nationally and across many states and school districts 

But we have much more work to do to meet our Grad Nation goals. We know we cannot have economically thriving communities when large numbers of our children are still not thriving in school. 

And the summit is where we start: reporting (and celebrating) our progress, sharing what works, creating vital connections, gaining new tools and knowledge, and recommitting ourselves to the job ahead. 

My question: Why is raising the graduation rate so important? APA notes that dropout rates are falling and graduation rates are up in the majority of states. This is nice to know, but school doesn't agree with everybody. And even in this high-skill, high-tech universe where busboys are supposed to be working in the knowledge industry, there's still only a tiny fragment of work-related craft that you actually learn in high school. 

The face that taught Joey Ramone how to love.

This morning, CNBC siren Maria Bartiromo led a panel on "the economic impact of the dropout crisis," which really confirmed the circularity of the argument: We need an educated workforce because otherwise our workforce won't be educated. 

Stuart Thorn, president and CEO of Carrollton, Georgia-based Southwire, a manufacturer of electrical wire and cable, made the point that his company only hires high school graduates. His doing-good-by-doing-well argument was that the company needed to influence the national movement of graduation rates in part so that workers can "make 50 percent more over the course of their careers." This very loose statistic is an average, and it doesn't really tell you anything about what a high school diploma will do for any particular person. 

And of course, the reason possessors of high school diplomas make more on average is that so many companies won't hire non-graduates. Thorn has every right to demand an education minimum for his employees – though I'm not sure figuring out how high a ball will bounce on its fifth bounce if on the first bounce it reaches a height of 125 inches and on each subsequent bounce it reaches a height 2/5 of the previous bounce is a skill you really need to make copper wire. But this is an attempt to nationalize a private goal.

The rest of the panelists continued the theme. DeVry Inc. president Daniel Hamburger pinned the crisis on the fact that "our government is so budget-challenged," while Miami-Dade public school superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho fumed that the morning's talk had featured "more discussion of this problem than in all the presidential debates." 

Even if I had confidence in Rick Santorum's ability to solve the dropout crisis, I still wouldn't be sure it was a crisis. Or rather, it's a self-created crisis. We need to get graduation rates up because we have put so much false value on graduation as a goal unto itself, without asking whether any particular person actually needs a diploma to live a complete life, how unmotivated students slow down more motivated students, or why we're so eager to keep kids in a system that is universally described as "failing" and "broken." The fastest way to solve the dropout problem is to remove the stigma of dropping out.