Don’t Drop Out, but Stay for the Right Reasons
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.