The superintendent of an urban school system remarked, at a campus social function, that a certain boy of considerable promise had dropped out on his 16th birthday. The superintendent was brought up short to hear a first-grade teacher state emphatically, "No surprise to me."
She explained: "Oh, I can tell the signs. Ask any first- or second-grade teacher; they'll be able to name all potential dropouts, and I swear if you put those names in your safe and looked at them eight or nine years down the road, you'd find we were right on target."
The national dropout rate is now about 25%; some troubled urban areas are much higher--a California state report last week put the Los Angeles dropout rate at 39%.
No one knows for sure how many students stop attending school before they receive a diploma for completing the required number of courses, but current nationwide estimates put it as high as 50%. (Last week's California report, for example, put the Los Angeles "attrition rate" at 56.4%, counting dropouts plus students who move away or leave for other reasons.) And although students aren't supposed to drop out before they reach their 16th birthday, clearly many do.
One reason we know so little about dropouts has to do with school counseling and college-guidance counselors. In most U.S. public secondary schools, only those students planning to go to college are given serious guidance.
Vocational students, and all those who signal an interest in immediate job placement after graduation, are generally guided not so much by counselors as by their classroom faculty members.
But the student who "isn't making it"--that youngster pegged by his first-grade teacher as an academic failure--is not being given any thoughtful and consistent guidance in what to do when he or she leaves school.
Nor are dropouts encouraged to talk with guidance counselors during those first few months, when they no longer are in school but haven't found a full-time job or a mentor to help with the exigencies of full-time adulthood.
Since the cumulative record for potential dropouts begins to reflect shortcomings in the primary grades, guidance counselors regularly cull through their load to find those who are "college material," virtually ignoring the rest, arguing that counseling them would be a waste of time.
Yet the truth is that in today's world, the high school student who least needs guidance is the one bound for college. College-prep students already know a host of people who have gone on to college, and from them they can get an enormous amount of good advice and guidance.
Most school dropouts have no idea what to do next, or how to do it. They have neither the academic nor vocational skills to be attractive to employers. Most lack financial resources and don't know how to get credit. When they do get a paying job, they have had no training in handling funds to their economic advantage.
Dropouts, almost by definition, will have to find entry-level jobs, many of them part-time. Because they are dropouts, they have yet to learn many lifelong lessons, such as consistency, persistence, inherent self-worth--the job of learning, the satisfaction of succeeding.
College bound young people, on the other hand, not only have guidance counselors helping families work out financial support "packages" while in post-secondary schooling, but, once at a college, again have counselors assigned to help financially, socially, academically.
What we have, then, is a system that gives the most highly educated students the most counseling and struggling ones the least.
Now that's a curious way to treat half the youngsters in our nation. In fact, it's a national shame. We pay for it in record numbers of young adults suffering alcohol and drug abuse, in frightening amounts of street violence and tyranny, and in a serious breakdown in family structures. We will soon be a "democracy" where more than half of those eligible never vote--with the highest percentage of non-voters at the youngest ages.
Can the United States afford to waste this proportion of young citizens? Business has recently become aware of the problem--and of the need for thoughtful, honest, educated citizens. Millions of dollars are being spent on employees for basic literacy training.
There's no guarantee that providing good guidance counselors for potential dropouts, rather than lavishing it on the college-bound students, will lower crime rates, stabilize family structures or lift the general economy overnight. But as a person who has spent years wrestling with the problem, I am sure that providing guidance counselors for students who get the poorest grades and skip the most classes--helping them with guidance, say, until they are 20 years old--would ease that period of transition from full-time adolescence to full-time adulthood.
A new breed of counselors is needed--men and women who love and understand those struggling academically, who know the local community and its entry-level job openings, men and women who know which social and civic agencies stand ready to lend a hand to meet each dropout's special needs. And high schools must welcome back, for counseling, those students who failed to get diplomas.
I recently asked 200 school principals attending a Harvard conference if they agreed that, nationwide, we fail to give an adequate education to nearly half the children attending our schools.
They did. I then asked if they agreed that the way we administer our schools--offering virtually no guidance for school dropouts--contributed to the grievous fact that 50% of the nation's children fail to finish high school.
The hands rose--reluctantly and humbly--in timorous agreement. It wasn't a fair question--many of the principals could boast of guiding and teaching nearly 100% of their students. But in a nation with more than 12.4 million students in public school grades 9-12, there are only 68,500 counselors--about 1 for every 181 students.
Most of those 68,500 counselors are working with youngsters who need help the least.