May 06, 2004

Is our dropout learning?

Via the new and notable Eduwonk, I see that John Kerry is calling for more money to combat school dropout rates. According to the New York Times, his proposals include:
  • Doubling, to $300 million a year, money to create smaller high schools. The Bush administration had sought to eliminate the $150 million now in the budget for that, Mr. Kerry's advisers said.
  • Increasing spending by $200 million a year for mentoring middle school students and pairing college students with poor-performing middle schools.
  • Fifty million dollars a year for tutors and teacher training to improve literacy for lagging middle and high school students.
  • Supporting state legislation that denies drivers' licenses to dropouts.

    The centerpiece of his plan, aides said, was enforcing provisions of No Child Left Behind on reporting graduation rates. They cited disclosures in Houston and New York City that dropout rates were being dramatically underreported because students who had been pushed out of school had not been counted.
  • Faithful readers (!!) of this blog will no doubt recall that I'm a big, big fan of solid, extra-chunky proposals like these, especially when it comes to education. I especially like the idea of a focused effort to create smaller high schools. But all that aside, Kerry is treating the high-school dropout problem much too simplistically. Let me try to elaborate.

    First, note that high school dropout rates are related to youth unemployment rates in rather interesting ways. During the 1970s, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) ran a pilot program that guaranteed part-time jobs to low-income students, provided that they stayed in school. In their comprehensive 1980 report**, the MDRC found that the program "significantly affected the rate of return to school for out-of-school youths, and the retention in school of in-school youths." (An estimated 62.5% increase in returns, and 3.7% increase in retentions.)

    Although these numbers are skewed upwards by the fact that the survey only counted those who stayed in the program—and hence counted only the most self-motivated of students—the numbers still stand, striking and exceedingly promising.

    The lesson should be fairly clear: Students will stay in school provided that they can see some tangible benefit to staying in school. For the most part, low-income students grind away through shoddy high schools without much incentive to make it all the way through. Granted, most of us can see that high-school graduates make more money than dropouts, but this fact may not be readily apparent to students, especially poorer students. To borrow a very valid conservative idea, low-income youths need motivation.

    None of Kerry's ideas offer this carrot. Hiking up literacy rates will certainly improve the quality of education, but it's unlikely that tutors and better teachers will motivate at-risk dropouts to stay in school. Especially in urban areas, peer pressure and the lure of easy money on the street both can make school seem an inherently valueless prospect. By linking school to employment in a meaningful way, the MDRC was able to create motivation. A real plan to combat dropout rates should unfold along these lines.

    And needless to say, stripping away dropouts of drivers' licenses smacks of lunacy. Kids are famously shortsighted and usually don't respond rationally to deterrents. Bogus idea.

    **Note: The MDRC is currently running another, more intricate youth training program, although the findings won't be published until 2005.
    -- Brad Plumer 12:03 AM || ||