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President's Viewpoint: Sounding the Alarm

The school dropout crisis has devastating effects on young people. NEA plans to face it head-on.

The statistics are staggering.

According to estimates, about 30 percent of high school students drop out before graduation, meaning about 1 million students fail to graduate from high school every year. That amounts to some 7,000 students who drop out of school each day.

This is a deadly number that is having devastating effects on America’s young people, especially low-income and minority students. Only 5 in 10 Black and Hispanic students graduate on time with a standard diploma, and less than one-half of American Indian and Alaska Native students complete high school.

What happens when Johnny and his friends drop out of school? Studies show that each class of high school dropouts costs the nation more than $200 billion in lost wages and tax revenues, as well as spending for social support programs. High school dropouts have an earnings disadvantage that tends to remain with them throughout their lives. Without the required education to obtain a good-paying job, high school dropouts often face a bleak future. Among inmates of state and federal prisons, the majority failed to complete high school.

So what is the answer? Team NEA, we must face this problem head-on.

In an effort to refocus our nation on this crisis, we have launched a comprehensive plan to reduce the high school dropout rate. Drawn from a wide range of experience and data, the NEA plan calls for interventions that have been proven to be successful in improving student achievement and decreasing dropouts.

Among our sources was a 2006 study by Civic Enterprises that shared dropouts’ insights on why they left school before graduation. They cited a number of factors that would have kept them in school: enhancing the connection between school and work; providing real-world learning experiences; making school more relevant and engaging; and providing more help to struggling students.

We heard their pleas, and our plan addresses these issues and more. Many high school students are falling through the cracks and dropping out, so we will fill that gap by making sure students receive individual attention in smaller classes and learning communities as well as tutoring options during the school day, weekends, and summer breaks.

Our best hope of keeping students in school will require a multi-pronged attack. We will work to provide educators with the training and resources to spot the common dropout indicators: poor grades, poor attendance, poor family support, and lack of interest. We will fight to expand students’ graduation options by partnering with community colleges in career and technical fields and with alternative schools so that youngsters have multiple paths to earn a diploma and achieve success.

And we will act early. Children at risk need to be identified at a young age—as early as preschool—so that sustained support can be applied. Research shows that success in the elementary grades diminishes the possibility of later dropping out in high school.

Putting our Dropout Plan into action will demand a team approach—the combined efforts of parents, educators, administrators, community-based organizations, businesses, and federal, state, and local governments. There is no one magical, quick-fix remedy to the dropout problem. It is a complex issue that requires a complex array of solutions.

But one message comes across loud and clear from dropouts themselves: we must help youth to overcome their sense of disconnectedness. We have a responsibility to step in and end the “slow disengagement” that leads 16-year-olds to opt out of their basic right to a great public school.

We can turn the tide on this epidemic by executing our plan with a laser-like and purposeful focus. The nation’s dropout problem is generating a lot of passionate debate, but let’s remember what Mark Twain once said: “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.”

Team NEA, I know you can deliver the lightning!

-NEA President Reg Weaver

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