The Real Dropout Rate—And Why Some Students Should Drop Out Of School
In the grand tradition of Ebenezer Scrooge, economist
James J. Heckman, a
Nobel Laureate and
2002 Statistician of the Year, says
"Bah! Humbug!" to the happy-clappy statistics
the federal government has been feeding us on a key omen
of America`s future: high school dropout rates.
In an important paper with the bland title of
The American High School
Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels,
Heckman of the U. of Chicago and co-author Paul
A. LaFontaine of the American Bar Association report:
"The true high school graduation rate is substantially
lower than the official rate issued by the National
Center for Educational Statistics."
The Department of Education`s NCES claims that the
graduation rate has been rising since back in the late
1960s, when it stood at 80 percent. [Dropout
Rates in the United States: 2005]
(Note: this implies, of course, that the dropout rate
back then was 20 percent: 100 percent minus the
graduation rate of 80 percent equals the dropout rate of
20 percent. Heckman and LaFontaine`s study always
reports the graduation rate, but I`m going to turn it
around at times and look at the more arresting dropout
According to the feds, as cited by Heckman and
"U.S. schools now graduate nearly 88 percent of students
and black graduation rates have converged to those of
non-Hispanic whites over the past four decades."
But in fact Heckman and LaFontaine`s exhaustive study of
the widest array of data sources consulted to date finds
that the high school dropout rate isn`t 12 percent, but
about twice that. And the
racial gaps have been steady since the early 1970s.
Moreover, although the high school dropout rate improved
steadily through the middle of the 20th Century, falling
from 75 percent in the early 1920s to 20 percent in the
late 1960s, it has worsened, by up to one-fourth, since
This was not expected, to say the least. The high school
graduation rate should still be going up—because
dropping out is ever more of a personal disaster. H&L
"The U.S. high school graduation rate has declined at a
time when the returns to completing high school have
Dropping out of high school is a terrible way to start
your life. For example, 78 percent of prisoners, but
only 9 percent of new recruits allowed to enlist in the
U.S. military, are high school dropouts. H&L add:
trouble for all of America. H&L sum up:
"To increase the skill levels of the future workforce,
America needs to confront a large and growing dropout
H&L`s study finds:
"The decline in high school graduation is almost
exclusively concentrated among young males. The overall
male graduation rate fell 7 percentage points from the
first to the last cohort, while the female rate fell by
only 1 point …"
And that`s bad news because
males cause most of the trouble in this world.
(The college graduation rate has been improving,
reaching 24 percent for men and 36 percent for women
born in 1980. But even this growth has been tailing off
lately as the high school graduation slump feds through.
"The slowdown in the high school graduation rate
accounts for a substantial portion of the recent
slowdown in the growth of college educated workers in
the U.S. workforce… This slowdown is not due to a
decline in rates of college attendance among those who
graduate high school.")
The high school dropout rate has improved a little since
the passage of the No Child Left Behind act in 2001. But
H&L are cynical:
"NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise
by any means possible… Whether these represent real
gains or are an indication of schools cheating the
system in the face of political pressure remains an open
question for future research, although the timing
suggests strategic behavior."
is a euphemism for skullduggery.
Why is the federal government`s favored measure of high
school graduation misleading? It`s
biased in large part by counting as graduates those
dropouts who subsequently pass the
GED test (the "General Educational Development"
exam, often referred to, incorrectly, as the
"Graduation Equivalency Degree".) Heckman`s earlier
research shows, however, that the GED
counts for less in the eyes of potential employers
than does a genuine high school degree:
"Although GED recipients have the same measured academic
ability as high school graduates who do not attend
college, they have the economic and social outcomes of
otherwise similar dropouts without certification."
Dropouts who can pass the GED test are generally smarter
than dropouts who can`t, but they tend to have poor work
"Despite measures of cognitive ability similar to high
school graduates, GED recipients perform significantly
worse in all dimensions when compared to them (Heckman
and Rubinstein ). GED recipients lack
noncognitive skills such as perseverance and motivation
that are essential to success in school and in life."
Indeed, over 10 percent of all GEDs are earned in
"However, minority male high school completers are
almost twice as likely as white males to possess a GED
and Heckman ). … A significant portion of the
convergence reported in the official statistics is due
to black males obtaining GED credentials in prison."
Needless to say, boning up for the GED is a better way
to pass the time in the slammer than such popular
alternatives as sharpening a
shiv on your cell`s concrete floor or making
Pruno wine out of ketchup in your toilet. But it
likely won`t do you as much good as staying in school
and out of prison in the first place.
Another major contributor to the long-term worsening in
dropout rates since the late 1960s: changing ethnic
ratios among young people. For example, the Hispanic
share of public school students has increased from 6
percent in 1972 to 20 percent.
Dropout rates have gotten slightly worse for all groups,
but I estimate that the majority of the deterioration
for the country as a whole is simply because Hispanics
and blacks making up
a larger share of the population than they did 35
In contrast to the federal propaganda, H&L find that the
dropout rate is around 35 percent for both
African-Americans and for those more
assimilated Hispanics who either were born in
America or have been here at least a decade.
In fact, despite somewhat higher test scores than
Americanized Hispanics still appear to leave school
early at a somewhat greater rate than blacks.
H&L report that the dropout rate for all
Hispanics, including recent immigrants, is significantly
"… almost half of Hispanics in this
[18-24] age group immigrated within the last ten
years. These recent Hispanic immigrants are primarily
low-skilled Mexican workers … The migration of
workers with low levels of education has increased
substantially over the past 40 years.…"
One of H&L`s crucial findings: the
ethnic gaps are not getting better:
"In fact, we find no evidence of convergence in
minority-majority graduation rates over the past 35
The H&L study carefully inspects seven massive
"longitudinal" surveys that have tracked
thousands of young people through their adult lives. It
finds that graduation rates for blacks and Latinos
improved during the 1960s, when legally segregated
was effectively abolished. But since then, there has
been stagnation and, perhaps, slight deterioration for
all three major ethnic groups.
This intractability of racial differences is
something that is constantly assumed away by popular
demonize anyone who suggests that these gaps might
have genetic origins. "All we have to do is change
Perhaps. But, despite 35 years of rapid changes in the
social environment, nothing has happened to the dropout
disparities. The only difference is that there are now
far more low-performing minorities than in 1972.
With racial gaps, this is a common pattern seen across
many different measures. Relative quality
differences among the races languish virtually unchanged
from decade to decade. But, primarily through
immigration policy, we allow relative quantity to
change relentlessly—in inevitably unfavorable
What has the educational system been doing about the
In recent years, politicians keep
raising the graduation requirements in theory, while
giving principals and teachers incentives to lower them
in practice. Many locales have piled on advanced math
and other rigorous classes, plus
mandatory exit exams, all the while threatening to
penalize schools for their dropout rates.
The net result of all this
and fury: dropout rates have crept upward
slightly over the last generation and a half.
Our social engineers must show some humility. They must
admit that they don`t have much of a clue what will
help. Realistically, the best we can hope for are modest
The simplest steps are to remove the disincentives that
keep students from achieving their individual
To do that, however, the educational elite must finally
take into account that we don`t live in
Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.
Half of the students must be below average in
Yet, this simple tautology is off-limits these days …
because more than half of the Non-Asian
Minorities (NAMs) are below average.
Thus, America`s education policy makers—ranging from
school board members to the architects of the
NCLB, Senator Kennedy and President Bush, and even
on to the main financial backers of the meddling Gates
Foundation, the hyper-intelligent billionaires Bill
Gates and Warren Buffett—seem so
paralyzed by fear of being
Watsoned for mentioning the Bell Curve gap in IQ
that they ignore simple cause and effect reasoning.
"During that trip, I must have heard Mr. Gates mention
`IQ` a hundred times." [Microsoft`s
Wall Street Journal, July 28 2004]
And yet the
Gates Foundation is one of the prime funders of the
Higher Flapdoodle in public education. For instance,
Gates largely paid for the
Aspen Institute`s Commission on the No Child Left Behind
Law, which recently endorsed renewing the
legislation`s nutty mandate that every single student in
America test as "proficient" (i.e., above
average) by 2014.
The conventional wisdom is that
having a two-digit IQ is such a
horrible debility that the
only thing we can do for the poor bastards is never
mention “IQ” in public. But that just leads to
more foolish, counter-productive policies—for example,
the Educational Industry`s obsession with getting
students into four-year colleges because of the myth
that their only options are “Yale
Consider how the nation`s second largest school
district, Los Angeles, where over half of all NAMs drop
out, is attempting to lower the dropout rate by making
it harder to graduate—while simultaneously
school administrations with dire consequences if
they don`t raise the percentage of students graduating.
The LAUSD has essentially
outsourced its high school graduation requirements
planning to the
elite University of California, which only allows in
high students who have passed its
rigorous "A-G" curriculum of required
press release from the Gates Foundation trumpeted:
"In June, the LAUSD board approved a plan requiring all
high school students beginning with the class of 2008 to
complete a 15-course series, known as the A-G
Curriculum, in order to graduate. This is the same
requirement for admission to the University of
California and California State University systems."
The new A-G Curriculum requirement will mandate two
years of foreign language (i.e., Spanish, as instruction
in other languages are being phased out in LA).
Obviously, this is intended as a gift to Hispanic
immigrants. But it will be another cross to bear for
African-Americans, who have never shown much
enthusiasm for learning Spanish. For example, lawyer
Winston Kevin McKesson, a protégé of Johnnie Cochran
who defended the rogue police officer upon whom Denzel
Washington`s Oscar-winning portrayal in "Training
Day" was based, told me in 2001 that only
4 out the 900 black LAPD officers speak Spanish,
even though a large fraction of the witnesses and
perps in LA speak only Spanish.
Worse, every public high school student in LA will have
not just Algebra I and Geometry to graduate, but also
It would be nice if each student in LA were smart enough
to pass Algebra II. But they aren`t. (I wonder how many
LA School Board members could pass Algebra II …)
John Derbyshire`s recent book Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra
emphasizes, the essence of algebra is abstraction.
Human beings differ wildly in their talent for abstract
thinking, from Gauss at the top of the pyramid down to,
well, a lot of high school students at the broad bottom.
Even a recent Gates Foundation
press release admitted:
"only about 22 percent of 9th
graders in the class of 2003 graduated having
successfully completed the A-G curriculum."
There`s a reason that most high school students in LA
aren`t successfully completing UC prerequisites: they
aren`t UC material.
By law, the UC system is reserved for the top 1/8th of
California high school students.
Moreover, LA, America`s City of the Future, is the
anti-Lake Wobegon. In the LA school district,
no more than ten percent of entering 9th graders
will, before they leave high school, score at or above
the intended mean of 1000 on the SAT—Math plus Verbal,
not including the new Writing test. (By the way, that
would be an 890 under the pre-1995 SAT scoring system.)
The fact is that it can be rational behavior for some
students to drop out now rather than wait around to be
superannuated because they can`t pass their math
They get it. Why can`t the people in charge figure that
What would a more sensible approach to the high school
dropout problem look like?
- The first point to remember:
not all dropouts are
Every school has a certain number of anti-students who
so disruptive that the rest of the student body
would be better off without them. For the most
thuggish students, the dropout rate isn`t too
high—it`s too low. So schools shouldn`t be assessed
negatively for every single dropout. They should be
encouraged to grease the skids under their most
(Most big school districts these days have
"Continuation Schools" that serve as isolation
pens for the most troublesome students, giving them the
opportunity to continue their education online and with
weekly one-on-one meetings with teachers. So, the
gangbangers and the like can still get a degree if they
want to, but they don`t have to drag other kids down
- Second: we should
be using both sticks AND carrots.
The latest educational fad—trying to terrify
not-so-smart kids by threatening to flunk them out—is
counterproductive. Many students quickly figure out that
their odds of completing all the requirements and
passing the exit exam are slim. So they give up midway
through 9th grade.
It`s time to admit that four years of high school, just
like four years of college, isn`t for everybody. We`ve
long offered Associates of Arts degrees for passing two
years of community college. Why not some kind of
associate high school diploma for making it through 10th
That would give the bottom tier of students a feasible
goal, and then allow them to
get out in the work force earlier, and with a
credential telling employers they aren`t complete goofs.
For those who can benefit from four years of high
school, it makes sense to give them a hierarchy of
diplomas to aim for. A good model might the traditional
British degree classification, where, if you avoid
failing, you are awarded a
First, Second, Third, or Pass degree. These finer
distinctions allow students of varying levels of ability
to set appropriate goals for themselves. And they let
employers get a more discriminating read on a graduate`s
There are many students in our public high schools for
whom getting a Third would be a sizable accomplishment,
a reasonable goal for which they could strive for four
years. And just getting a Pass degree would at least
represent to potential employers that they are
- Finally: as always, when we find ourselves in a
hole, it`s time to
more unskilled immigrants is just digging ourselves
a deeper hole.
Realism isn`t welcome in American public life. But the
plain fact is that this blind political correctness is
wrecking kids` lives.
features his daily blog.]