Vanderbilt Magazine

Vanderbilt Magazine

Lost in America

Twenty years ago America had the most educated populace on the planet. Now millions of high school dropouts face a bleak future.

by Dwayne O’Brien, MA’05

FeaturedSpring 2008  |  Share This  |  E-mail  |  Print  | 
(No Ratings Yet)


Call them “the disappeared.”

Last year 1.2 million American students dropped out of high school without receiving their diplomas.

Only they didn’t really disappear. According to “The Silent Epidemic,” a recent study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, many of them joined the ranks of the unemployed and impoverished. They became single parents, swallowed up state and federal dollars for welfare and food stamps, and, in too many cases, committed crimes and went to prison.

The U.S. system of public education, it seems, is failing its children. But not all of them. Hundreds of high schools are graduating nearly 100 percent of their students and sending them out to universities far and wide, fully prepared to take on the rigors of higher education. Those left behind on the bottom rung of the achievement gap tend to be minority boys and girls from low-income neighborhoods, often in urban areas, and often attending massive comprehensive high schools of several thousand students.

Today nearly one in three high school students will leave school without a diploma. For white and Asian American students, the graduation rate is estimated at between 70 and 80 percent. For blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, the rate plummets to around 50 percent. The situation is even direr in certain school districts. The graduation rate in the Detroit city schools, for example, was only 21.7 percent in 2006.

Some media sources have tagged the problem with catchy labels, calling the United States “Dropout Nation,” and failing schools “dropout factories.” Yet those terms may actually mask the real issue–that millions of teenagers and young adults feel so alienated in an academic setting that they ultimately pack it in and give up.

Although many of the contributing factors seem insurmountable–lack of resources and parental involvement, poor housing and high mobility, state and federal mandates on testing, teacher inexperience and burnout–researchers, including those at Vanderbilt, are doggedly chipping away at the problem, trying to come up with solutions that address the issues on at least a neighborhood and local level.

Here’s why: The education dilemma is a ticking time bomb. According to some experts, our economy is losing hundreds of billions of dollars in wages alone over the lifetimes of these dropouts. America, which only 20 years ago had the most educated populace on the planet, now ranks anywhere from seventh to 18th in comparison to other nations in terms of relative effectiveness of its educational system. Performance in math and science among U.S. students in fourth through 12th grades is steadily declining; one study has American eighth graders tied with students in third-world Zimbabwe in mathematics. As America moves from a manufacturing-based economy to a globalized service- and technology-based economy, it is not producing a workforce educated enough to handle jobs that will keep the country clicking.

The system is a vinyl LP in the iPod era. The post-World War II concept of monolithic neighborhood high schools that track youngsters into academic or vocational classes may need a wholesale do-over.

Despite decades of education reform, educators and legislators now face the hard reality that the system itself is a vinyl LP in the iPod era. The post-World War II concept of teaching children in monolithic neighborhood high schools that steer youngsters into either academic or vocational classes may need a wholesale do-over. In a high-tech, information-laden society such as ours, everybody from professors to mechanics needs a fairly advanced academic skill set.

Early Action Is Crucial

Carolyn Hughes, professor of special education and human and organizational development in Peabody College, believes that creation of inner-school “small learning communities” is one place to start. Studies by the Gates Foundation and other organizations reveal that, in most cases, the decision to drop out of school is a long, gradual, cumulative process. It often begins in middle school as students become disengaged from schoolwork and disenfranchised from higher-achieving peers. Once they reach high school, these students see no connection between what they’re learning and their own lives. They begin acting out, missing class, and slowly falling through the cracks. Many times teachers are too overwhelmed to notice.

“We are realizing that the impersonal nature of attending a huge high school with little time for teachers to mentor adolescents is probably not healthy for kids,” says Hughes. “We have come to ask ourselves, are freshmen ready for this?”

The Small Learning Community (SLC) is a way to address the new “Three R’s” of education–relevance, relationships and rigor. In this model, ninth graders enter a separate academy and teachers follow a set group of students throughout their high school careers, challenging them to think and linking academic content to their real-time life experiences.

“The idea is to create schools within the big school to increase rapport and relationship-building among students and teachers, and to increase the relevance of the school day,” Hughes says. “A small learning community results in greater parent involvement. That leads to a lower dropout rate. A smaller academy also leads to greater accountability and more peer-to-peer connections.”

Because they know the students well, teachers in the small learning community can help students set goals for life after high school. They can be attuned to students dealing with profound family and personal problems. Because truancy is the primary precursor to dropping out, they notice and take action when someone has missed too many days of school.

When researchers break down students into male/female and into various ethnic groups, they find that the high schooler most at risk for dropping out is the African American male. The problem begins with low expectations for black males, says Donna Ford, Betts Chair of Education and Human Development and professor of special education, whose research focuses on gifted and talented poor and minority students.

“You see an over-referral of black males in special education classes,” Ford says. “Plus, negative peer pressure is real. If you are a high-performing African American student, you face a strong possibility of being accused of ‘acting white.’”

Gilman Whiting, assistant professor of African American and diaspora studies, agrees, explaining that studies show a correlation between the number of friends a teenage boy has and his grade-point average. “The more friends you have, if you’re a white male, the more likely you are to have a high GPA. It’s the reverse for African American students. The more friends you have, the lower your GPA,” Whiting says.

Black men are the least likely among all groups to go to college. Among all students who do go to college, they are the most at risk for quitting before completing their degrees.

It’s a different story for African American females. While their high school graduation rates are lower than for white students, black females are more likely to attend college than black males. At Vanderbilt, which has a very high completion rate in general, black females are the most likely among all groups to complete their coursework and receive their degrees. In other words, not only is the achievement gap between African

Americans and other racial groups growing ever wider, but so is the achievement gap between African American women and men.

“People talk about fear of failure, but for females, particularly for African American females, there is fear of success, as well,” observes Ford. “Females face that fear factor that if you’re too intelligent or too studious, you risk not getting a boyfriend. You’re going to be by yourself.”

The answer, Ford and Whiting insist, is to raise the bar for minority male students in particular, beginning in middle school and carrying all the way through college. The change starts by developing what Whiting calls a “scholar identity,” meaning that black and Hispanic boys view themselves as academically capable, studious, intelligent and talented in the school setting–and that being well educated is both cool and empowering.

To that end, Whiting, Ford, and a group of service-minded African American professionals known as the 100 Kings established the Scholar Identity Institute, a two-week summer program for fifth- through 10th-grade boys from low-income urban neighborhoods. The boys come to Vanderbilt’s campus and engage in games and lectures to stoke their interest in academics and to change attitudes about school and learning.

“We don’t focus on your test scores, your GPAs, your school attendance. We focus on the need for the right attitude so that you do well in school,” Whiting says. “Even if you think what you’re learning is boring and trivial, you’ll listen and you’ll do the homework. Even if your mom is not involved in your school, even if you think your teachers hate you, you still need an education. So despite your unfortunate situation, what can you do to persist and be resilient?”

The Great Divide

A generation or two ago, a high school dropout could get an entry-level job at the nearby plant or factory with health insurance and benefits, and retire 30 years later with a decent pension. Those days are over. Most manufacturing has left low-income neighborhoods, having shut down or moved overseas. Where businesses still operate, even entry-level jobs call for a high school diploma or two years of vocational or community college. The options for dropouts are menial, minimum-wage employment or public assistance.

Yet study after study shows that students start out believing in the American dream.

Around 90 percent of ninth graders say they plan to go to college. But something happens between ninth and 12th grades, between intention and reality. Sometimes it’s family finances, sometimes it’s poor academic performance. Sometimes it’s detachment from the grind of studying.

Whatever the cause, it has produced an intellectual sinkhole. Right now, for example, only 22 percent of Tennesseans over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree or above. Because a person with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn over his or her lifetime a million dollars more than someone with a high school diploma or less, the disparity foreshadows the emergence of a new aristocracy.

To keep big-dreaming students on the track for college, some schools have instituted university-based mentoring programs (see sidebar articles) and grant programs like AVID and GEAR UP. AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is designed to help selected students from underrepresented populations, often first-generation college-goers, navigate the college application labyrinth.

Though Carolyn Hughes approves of the program, she says it’s not enough. “The AVID kids are the lucky ones. They get individual attention that helps them go through the process,” she says. “But a lack of resources and counselors in high-needs schools means that only a few kids will be able to take advantage of the AVID college-prep services. Everybody should be able to access services like AVID, everybody should get the college prep courses, even if they’re going to trade school. The bar needs to be raised across the board for our high school kids.”

“Even if you think what you’re learning is boring and trivial, you’ll listen and do the homework. Even if your mom is not involved, even if you think your teachers hate you, you need an education.”

–Professor Gilman Whiting

GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is a federal grant program that provides college-prep services for students from seventh grade through high school in school districts where at least 50 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. The goal is to help students make the transition into a post-secondary school. GEAR UP in Tennessee focuses on rural, low-income school districts where high school graduation rates are comparable favorably to the state as a whole, but where relatively few go on to college.

Parents in rural families may not want their children to go off to college because they fear they won’t return to the community after they graduate, says Erin O’Hara, director of planning and research for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Students feel pulled in two different directions, between loyalty to family and personal ambition. The commission is planning a study to confirm if it’s true that rural students who go away for college don’t come back once they’re ready for professional employment.

With all these disparate problems and dynamics fueling the under-education of our nation’s youth, it would help if legislators and researchers could base decisions on a model school system that seems to work, one where school conditions cut against socio-demographic factors that contribute to the risk of dropping out. Claire Smrekar, associate professor of public policy and education, may have unearthed that model system in the Department of Defense Educational Activity (DoDEA) schools, which are located at American military installations around the world for the children of military personnel. African American and Hispanic students at DoDEA schools (some of the most racially integrated schools in the world) are achieving some of the highest assessment exam scores in the nation. Smrekar began a series of evaluations to uncover factors in their success and find out whether that information could benefit public schools.

“Particularly for African American females, there is fear of success: If you’re too intelligent or too studious, you risk not getting a boyfriend. You’re going to be by yourself.”

–Professor Donna Ford

In many ways the DoDEA community mirrors a high-risk public school system. Children tend to come from families of the working poor because enlisted military members greatly outnumber officers. Most of their parents do not have college degrees, and many joined the military as teenagers. Since parents are often transferred to other bases or are deployed overseas, students experience a high degree of stress related to transience, separation and family instability.

Yet DoDEA children typically perform well in school. “We found a deep commitment to education and training. Although the parents tend to hold a high school diploma only, they want more for their kids,” Smrekar says. “Instead of conditions of disengagement, we found instances of integration, support, and a seamless webbing between school and home.”

DoDEA schools tend to be smaller than comparable public schools, particularly middle schools, where adolescents usually begin to fall away. “Faculty members have this incredibly deep level of professionalism and dedication,” Smrekar says. “There’s an exceptional sense of community in these schools, so kids can’t be anonymous. They can’t get lost.”

Counselors are available for children and parents to help them cope with separation and loss. Peer-buddies and mentors are built into the system to help students who enter mid-year quickly adjust to a new setting. Teachers have discretion to adjust lesson plans and activities. DoDEA schools set high academic standards, maintain discipline, and prepare students for post-secondary study. DoDEA graduates tend to handle the demands of college successfully.

Smrekar believes DoDEA schools offer a roadmap for public education systems that face similar problems.

It all begins with caring, says Hughes, who has started a new mentoring program where Vanderbilt students meet with at-risk high schoolers at a neighborhood community center or a local branch library–sites that are neutral and not intimidating to teenagers–to talk about college and help them acquire tools for getting through high school.

“We’re not going to throw up our hands and say this dropout problem is too overwhelming,” Hughes insists. “We can’t beat the system, but we can work within it and have a positive and powerful effect.”


© 2015 Vanderbilt University

Share Your VUpoint

Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.

Claudette Harris says:

Love this article! As a third grade teacher with the Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DoDDS)system in Germany I am proud of the work my colleagues and I do on a daily basis. Our teachers come from school systems all across the US and I believe that is another reason why we are so good at what we do. We share ideas on a daily basis in order to make our students successful. We also have high expectations for our students. I find that the administration I’ve had the pleasure of working with have been very supportive of the work we do. Professional development is a large part of what we do here in the DoDEA system.

Currently I have a class of 20 students. 16 of the 20 have one parent in Iraq and one student has both parents in Iraq. Dealing with the stress of deployment and trying to educate these children is a daily challenge.

My father served in Korea and Vietnam. I have shared my experience with my students and parents. I find that the parents appreciate the fact that I have gone through a similar experience as their children and my students feel they can relate to me on some level. Although I have shared my experience, I still have high expectations for my students. I also have the support from a great group of parents.

One of the things I enjoy about the DoDEA system is the multi-cultural aspect of the job. As an African American I felt it necessary to work in this school system so African American students could see someone like themselves. I have come to appreciate the vast cultural differences in my classroom and we celebrate those differences everyday. As a school we also celebrate cultural diversity.

Regardless of your political viewpoint, I don’t think people understand exactly what this war is doing to the children of the men and women who serve our country.

The professional teachers of DoDDS (overseas schools) and DDESS (stateside schools) do understand what these children are going through but we also understand that they need to be educated and try to keep their focus on academics as much as possible. Their safe place is the schools.

Maryellen Pienta says:

Not coincidentally, the DoDEA schools also have had AVID in place for fifteen years. In fact, DoDEA was one of the first districts outside of California to adopt AVID. It has proven to be highly effective in accelerating students into rigorous courses, especially honors and AP, and in ensuring transitions to stateside schools and college.

John Merrow says:

A year ago we profiled one DoDEA school (on Fort Bragg,NC) for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. We found precisely what the author describes. Frankly it was one of the best schools I have visited or reported on in nearly 35 years on the job.
If you would like to see the 11-minute piece, go to and search for “Lessons of War.”

Katherine Vanderpool, Provost, BA’87 (Wayland, Mass.) says:

I’ve been so impressed with recent editions. The writing has always been top-notch, but what has inspired me is the depth and breadth of content. I particularly enjoyed the focus on nonprofits/social initiatives with respect to education, including new models for urban schools and the Posse Foundation. I kept the edition to refer back to because I’m considering a career change after 17 years in affordable housing. Thank you, and keep it up!

At YES, Failure Is Not an Option

Never underestimate the power of a good dose of outrage. About 12 years ago Chris Barbic got angry--really angry. In 1992 Barbic had graduated from Vanderbilt and signed on through Teach for America as a sixth-grade math teacher in the Houston inner-city schools. Finding the experience rewarding, he decided to teach for a few more years before starting law school.

One-Room Schoolhouse on Wheels

Billy Hudson is living testament to the power of teachers. Hudson, who once seemed destined to spend his life working in the cotton fields of Arkansas, is an internationally known scientist who helped discover the molecular underpinnings of autoimmune and hereditary kidney diseases.

Middle College High Schools Offer a Second Chance

Terry Grier, superintendent of 71,000-student Guilford County, N.C., Schools (which serves Greensboro/High Point), doesn't claim to have solved the dropout problem, but he is making headway--and earning national attention for his efforts.

Where Leadership Counts More Than SAT Scores

Fifteen years ago Michael Ainslie, then president and CEO of Sotheby's Holdings, learned about an effort to help inner-city kids succeed in college. "It was so simple and so beautiful and so obvious," he remembers thinking. "Young people coming from some of the worst high schools to some of the best universities in the country need support to succeed."

Keep Reading

    None Found