I heard a story on NPR this week about our nation’s dropout crisis and how it is affecting our fiscal burden: “Nearly 1 million kids who start high school every year don’t make it to graduation. At a time when federal and state budgets are tight, dropouts costs taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue, health care, welfare and incarceration costs.”
Linda Wertheimer’s opening statement caught my attention. She explained that “just under four million kids begin ninth grade every year, but about a fourth of them don’t make it to graduation. That’s almost a million dropouts every year. According to one estimate, from the American Council on Education, there are currently 40 million Americans who never graduated from high school. That is an enormous cost for them as individuals, for the rest of society.”
Now, I understand what they are talking about. They are talking about the kids who dropout for one reason or another, with no interest in learning or earning a degree, who then go on to become a burden rather than a producer in society. But I wondered how kids who “dropout” of school to start homeschooling fit into those statistics.
As I was doing research for my book on famous homeschoolers, I realized that many of the people I was calling “self-educated,” could also be called “dropouts.” Bernard Kerik dropped out of high school but many years later became the New York City Police Commissioner. Quentin Tarantino dropped out of high school but later became a hugely successful movie producer. One could also say that Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Louis Armstrong, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison and John Muir were “dropouts” because they did not go to any sort of school as teenagers. But they were not burdens on society.
The official difference between homeschooling and dropping out is really only a piece of paper signed by the parent. If homeschooling means that a child continues to learn and make progress at home instead of at school, then the implication must be that dropouts stop learning altogether. I really have no idea if this is true. How do we know that dropouts have stopped improving themselves?
There is certainly evidence that dropouts are having a tough time. NPR reports that:
- The unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma is nearly twice that of the general population.
- Over a lifetime, a high school dropout will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate and almost $1 million less than a college graduate.
- Dropouts are more likely to commit crimes, abuse drugs and alcohol, become teenage parents, live in poverty and commit suicide.
How do we know that all of these thing are directly attributable to dropping out of school though? What about family or community influences? Could part of the unemployment problem be the stigma now attached to dropping out? During the report, Wertheimer interviewed a man named Kenny Buchanan who had dropped out of school in 9th grade to go to work. He has successfully performed a variety of jobs over the years, but now with the economic downturn, and more automated job application procedures, he’s not being considered for employment because he does not have a high school diploma. There’s probably more to the story, but I thought it was very sad that employers could not be bothered to check on his experience or references, using “high school diploma” as a filter for applications.
I think the assumption that sitting in a classroom for four years makes a person more productive than a person that pursues self-education is ridiculous. Of course, sitting in a classroom for four years is much better than dropping out to cause trouble or self-destruct. The problem with self-education is how to prove what you have learned. Entrepreneurship solves that problem. Don’t bother proving yourself to a boss, just go prove it to a customer! Another way would be to create more gatekeepers. I’m still thinking about that one. We don’t want “diploma mills,” just some way to evaluate skills, knowledge and experience without depending on schools to do the filtering.
I would like to see a society where the term “dropout” is essentially meaningless; a society where everybody is free to learn and contribute in the way that works best for them. Does that make me sound like a hippy? At least I didn’t use the words “peace” and “love.” And I don’t mean lowering standards to accommodate everyone. Employers should be able to set whatever high standards they want, but potential employees should be able to meet those standards in a variety of ways. Success or failure should not be determined by arbitrary Department of Education regulations, but by how hard someone is willing to work and learn.