A new Gates Foundation report detailing survey and focus-group responses by more than 500 dropouts nationwide prompted a two-day Oprah Winfrey special and a Time Magazine cover story. The coverage exposed the sad reality that nearly one in three high school students drops out.
High school dropouts need options, not opt-outs.
Surprisingly, only 35 percent of participants in the Gates Foundation report identified fear of failure as a major factor in their decision to leave school. 70 percent thought they could have graduated, and two-thirds said that “they would have worked harder if more had been demanded of them.”
These findings refute the common assumption that students drop out because they are unable to meet academic standards. With 88 percent of respondents earning passing grades, it is more reasonable to believe these students are under-challenged than it is to write them off as underachievers.
The overwhelming majority of participants said they might not have dropped out if their schools offered better instruction (81 percent) and fostered an academic climate (65 percent). Not being challenged increased student boredom and absenteeism levels. As one respondent put it, “They just let you pass, anything you got.”
One promising way to address the national drop out crisis is with school choice. A grant system would encourage schools to offer unique programs and unconventional approaches to learning that might attract otherwise disengaged students. Early evidence shows grants can cut dropout rates in half.
Arizona policymakers could create a student-centered grant program that would help potential dropouts become success stories, not statistics.
Arwynn Mattix is a Goldwater Institute Ronald Reagan Fellow.
-Manhattan Institute: “Rising to the Challenge:The Effect of School Choice on Public Schools in Milwaukee and San Antonio”
-Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts”
-Manhattan Institute for Policy Research: “Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991’"2002”