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The Dropout Directive

How NEA plans to end the ‘silent epidemic.’


By Alain Jehlen

Let’s make a high school diploma or its equivalent mandatory for all students below the age of 21.

That dramatic proposal is at the top of a 12-point plan to address the nation’s school dropout crisis that NEA President Reg Weaver unveiled at a packed Washington, D.C., press conference in the fall.

“It will take everyone sharing responsibility to correct [the dropout crisis],” said NEA President Reg Weaver. Groups and individuals such as the NAACP, National PTA, Texas Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, and Verizon have lent their support to Weaver’s call.
Photo: Charles Votaw

“Just as we established compulsory attendance to the age of 16 or 17 at the beginning of the 20th century, we must now eradicate the idea of ‘dropping out’ before you achieve your diploma,” said Weaver.

As many as half of Black and Hispanic students leave school without a diploma, along with roughly a quarter of their White and Asian-American counterparts.

Along with the compulsory attendance proposal, the other 11 points in NEA’s plan involve strategies that have already been tested and proven, ranging from high-quality, universal preschool to special high school graduation centers for older students who didn’t graduate with their class and feel uncomfortable staying in school with younger students. The plan also emphasizes involving parents, clergy, businesses, and the entire community.

Since the plan was announced, Weaver’s call has been echoed by parent groups, business leaders, and organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), ASPIRA, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the National Association for the Education and Advancement of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans (NAFEA), and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). “The NEA plan presents innovative and forward-thinking methods of connecting students with post-secondary options for personal growth, development, and economic security,” said Bruce S. Gordon, NAACP’s president and CEO, adding that the plan ensures “that educators have the training, tools, and resources needed to provide a high-quality education and prevent students from dropping out.”

National Parent Teacher Association President-elect Jan Harp Domene considers the dropout rate a personal matter. When she was 16, her parents asked her to quit school and get a job. “If it were not for a teacher and a YMCA leader, I probably would have done that,” she said. She pledged that her organization would tackle the seventh item on NEA’s agenda: “Involve families in students’ learning at school and at home.”

Kathryn Brown, senior vice president of Verizon, said her company has trouble finding people with the high school-level skills needed to be effective at customer support, and she believed NEA’s plan would help solve that problem.

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX) warned that it’s not enough to raise academic standards in high school. “We can’t call high school reform successful if only half of students benefit from increased rigor because the other half don’t graduate,” he said. Hinojosa added that the Hispanic community has “struggled with high dropout rates, and low graduation rates for a very long time, but with little national attention, and even less action.”

John Bridgeland, author of The Silent Epidemic, a study of dropouts, said there are signs that students are dropping out earlier in their high school careers and credited NEA’s initiative for addressing the dropout issue through early and sustained intervention. Some observers have said districts may be encouraging struggling students to leave so their low scores won’t count in the annual No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) reporting. 

NEA is working with pro-public education members of the House and Senate to introduce elements of the plan in the next Congress. Weaver cites studies suggesting that dropping out of high school undermines a student’s earning ability and makes students more likely to go to jail and less likely to vote. That means everyone in society pays the price when students drop out, he said. “This is no longer about students slipping through the cracks of our educational system. Those cracks are now craters,” said Weaver. “It will take everyone sharing responsibility to correct it.”               


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