On Dropouts, Listen to Obama’s Favorite Economist

Libby Quaid of the AP reports today on a new Education Trust study of American high school dropout rates. According to that report, today’s kids complete high school at a lower rate than did their parents, NCLB hasn’t helped, and the solution is more federal money and sage oversight. Both the study and the AP story would have benefitted from a look at the work of two University of Chicago economists: James Heckman and Derek Neal.

Heckman, often cited as one of the biggest influences on Barack Obama’s education policy platform, co-authored in 2007 what is still the definitive study of U.S. graduation rates. He found that the graduation rate peaked around 80 percent in the late 1960s and has drifted down by four or five points since then. He also found a sudden up-tick immediately after the passage of NCLB. So did NCLB really help American kids? Not so fast. Heckman writes:

NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise graduation rates by any means possible. When monitoring was implemented in 2002, minority [student] retention [i.e., flunking] dropped sharply and graduation rates turned upward, especially for minority groups (Figure VI and VII)…. Whether these represent real gains or are an indication of schools cheating the system in the face of political pressure remains an open question for future research, although the timing suggests strategic behavior [i.e., cheating].

The tons of money and federal oversight added by NCLB appear to be sweeping public schooling’s failures under the rug, not fixing them. The recommendation of the new Education Trust study, that even more money and better federal intervention will do the trick, does not inspire confidence. Unless one believes that a prospective Obama presidency will usher in a gilded age of wise bureaucrats and politicians immune to self-interest, there is no reason to expect that more of the same “solutions” will produce anything other than more of the same results.

If any politicians and voters in this country actually care about raising the graduation rate in a meaningful way, they might want to have a look at the work of Heckman’s colleague Derek Neal, and the subsequent work of Greene (2004) and Warren (2008) — all of whom find that private schools significantly increase the graduation rates of urban (especially minority) children over the rates of similar students attending public schools. And they do this, of course, for about two-thirds of the cost.

Alas, don’t expect Obama to listen to Neal, Greene, or Warren on this evidence any time soon, as Obama has publicly expressed his opposition to parental choice programs that include private schools.