High schools should let dropouts be dropouts

By Jay Mathews, Washington Post
Published March 9, 2008

Every time I hear from a teacher, I learn something. It may be a new reading report, a promising homework technique, a story of a student's success. And sometimes it is a taboo-busting, eye-widening, troublemaking idea. Consider the e-mail that Michael Goldstein, founder of the MATCH Charter Public High School in Boston, sent, saying that if a kid wants to drop out, let him.

I would usually hit the delete button on something that impolitic. But Goldstein has created one of the most successful inner-city high schools in the country. He has proven to me time and again that he knows what he is talking about.

I think our awful dropout rate - only half of urban low-income students complete high school - is the most difficult educational problem in the country. (The rate for Pinellas black students was 43 percent last year - the worst in Florida.)

What Goldstein wants to do is sort of educational jujitsu: Let the force of the kid's rush out of school bring him back, later, with enough money to get the learning he finally realizes he needs.

So here, in italics, I am going to quote his e-mail in response to my request for solutions to the hopelessness found in many of our urban high schools:

I've got a nutty idea. When half the kids in most U.S. cities essentially reject the basic product called "school" - many would leave a lot earlier if they were allowed by parents and the law - then the best path forward is not only different schools (with caring, discipline, and rigor), but also offering a different product entirely.

Here's the different "product:" What if a 16-year-old could drop out but bank the money that the school district spends per pupil ($15,000 here in Boston), the amount that otherwise would have been spent junior and senior year, like a medical savings account or an IRA? Then it can't be touched for at least two years - force-feed kids the feeling of the dead-end life they're embarking on.

At first ... nobody bugs you to get up in the morning. ... You like it, freedom. After a few months, you realize you're a loser, other people are going places but not you. You maybe get a job and it's a boring security job at $8 an hour. And, maybe by age 20, or 26, or whatever, some maturity. Then (a dropout) can start over. He can use the set-aside money from the years of high school he missed for GED tutoring or perhaps special charter high schools set up for older students, then college or other higher ed. But he controls the money; he's essentially buying the service. Other options could spring up. Maybe even (in) the junior/senior year, $30,000 could be given to the military, which could set up programs where a high school dropout could attend a military-run boot camp, get a degree, then enlist.

The dropout would get a statement every quarter in the mail, like a mutual fund, which shows the $30,000 (plus interest) or whatever available for their education. In each statement, there would be an easy-to-read story about an inner-city kid who'd used the education funds to turn things around. Constant reminder.

In other words, let (the student) drop out. Give him a legit choice. Right now it's essentially "go thru the motions but resist every effort to learn, but at least show up" or "officially drop out." It's not just the second option that (stinks), but the first - the existing (high) school where everyone lowers the bar until the bar is merely "show up."

In other words, it's not that great for society if (a failing student) manages to creep across the finish line and graduate. ... He's still a kid with very low academic skills. The win is not much of a win. The option should be "Graduate from a high school which features only rigorous classes" or '"Bank the money we want to invest in your education and do your own thing for a while."

Let's say that instead of 50 percent taking the dropout option in the short term, 70 percent would take the "drop out and bank the money" option. That'd be great, if scary! The schools would then have the 30 percent who want to be there. The teachers would like their jobs more. In future years, it'd be easy to get the 31st percent, the 32nd, etc ... because younger students would perceive school as meaningful, and would be more likely to choose it. We'd keep adding kids who chose "rigorous high school" until we reached equilibrium.

Meanwhile, we'd create a plausible "later in life" high school and higher education pipeline through the set-asides. ... The existence of that dropout fund money would attract a whole bunch of education reform entrepreneurs.

My view: This is a very contrarian approach. Many of the big brains in education policy have been talking about going in the opposite direction - raising the legal school-leaving age from 16 to 18. Goldstein would make this pitch to teachers: "Would you support a massive change where only 11th- and 12th-graders who wanted to be here were here, and your classes would be a lot more challenging?"

Ever the cranky realist, I can't imagine that any school board would ever approve the Goldstein plan. But at the very least, I think he has focused on something most antidropout schemes ignore. Many kids that age cannot stand to be in school, no matter how winning the teachers or how understanding the counselors or how high-tech the vocational arts program. They have to get out of there.

I am no cowboy, but I seem to have read somewhere that there is no point in getting in the way of a stampede. So one rational answer might be: "Let them go. They will eventually get tired, and you can round them up." Something like that might work for restless teens, if administered by talented educators like Goldstein.

Jay Mathews puts together the Challenge Index, published each year by Newsweek, which ranks the "best" high schools in America, including several in the Tampa Bay area.