Secretary Duncan and "The Dropout"

In my loyal watching of The Daily Show, my curiosity and anticipation rose sharply when Jon Stewart’s guest on February 16th was U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I enjoyed Mr. Stewart’s assertive questioning of Mr. Duncan regarding testing and teacher evaluation, and the extended time given to this interview. However, I was disappointed when Mr. Duncan made the following comment about “drop-outs” without a challenge from Mr. Stewart: “We’ve got a million young people dropping out of school every single year, a million. There are no jobs, none. They are guaranteed poverty and social failure.” (minute 7:00)

Both men proceeded with their conversation, in agreement about at least this one point that high school dropouts are doomed to a miserable life. The fact that these two men I respect have no desire to examine this assumption is deeply troubling.

I understand their point, and I know that statistics are on their side. In fact, as an idealistic youth, I chose a career in education to address this very issue. However, as I became disillusioned with my role as a classroom teacher, I began to question this conclusion. I had some empathy for teens who felt trapped, bored, or ignored in the system, and who wanted to find a way to start their lives sooner.

What I learned shocked me, and I assume, would still shock Mr. Duncan and Mr. Stewart. Completing high school is not the gate-keeping behavior we all assume that it is for either college or employment. 

First, college. Teens who leave school without diplomas can take placement tests at community colleges and begin amassing college credits during what would have been their high school years. They can also audit courses at private colleges for free. Teens who engage in part-time college work instead of high school can earn credits and even Associate's Degrees before their former classmates graduate. Transferring to four-year colleges after successful exploration is a well-supported path by both the community colleges and four-year colleges. Teens with solid skills, self-confidence, and maturity can simply bypass high school and embark on a college career at any age. Some colleges and some programs may require a diploma for admissions, and in those cases a teen can obtain a GED after their sixteenth birthday or utilize on-line high school programs.

Second, employment. Generally, our culture respects teens who choose to work for money either after-school or during the summer. We tend to admire their industriousness and responsibility. Those who demonstrate maturity, reliability, and competence often earn promotions. Our culture encourages teens to prioritize school commitments over work, but few if any teens will be automatically fired from a job if they choose otherwise.

Beyond college and employment, teens who leave high school without graduating can find their way into every program and opportunity in our culture, including the military, Americorps, the arts, entrepreneurship, and meaningful internships.

Why, then, do we see such disastrous statistics for high-school dropouts? Is it possible that telling teens there is only “One Right Way to Live” creates a negative self-fulfilling prophecy for those that find that way unappealing, or even a downright waste of time? Could it be that most teens simply believe this message, and when they do choose to leave school, their sense of shame and failure leads them to assume they have ruined their lives? Many “drop-outs” do effectively utilize the options I’ve just listed, but often they need some recovery time and lucky help to realize that a positive life remains available to them.

What if we offered teens who don’t like school a different message, and even some support? What if we said, “Okay, school is one approach that works for many teens in our country. But if it’s not working for you, let’s think about how else you might live and learn. There are plenty of ways to thrive and do well if you take yourself seriously. It will be scary and challenging, but it is actually fine to stop attending high school.”

The actual fact is that that teens do not need to complete high school in order to find meaningful opportunities.  They do need passion, inspiration, talent, knowledge, and self-confidence. Most need support from their families, teachers, and local organizations in order to discover and utilize these opportunities. Acknowledging this truth and considering how to integrate it into our current public school system would do more to achieve the new paradigm of education Mr. Duncan aspires to than repeating pejorative comments about those that might dream for another way of learning. The first step would be to eliminate the phrase “drop-out” and its associated negative stereotypes from our lexicon. Instead, we could talk calmly about “teens who choose to leave school” and what services would be most useful to offer them.