Commentary

Dropout Nation?

This article appeared in TownHall.com on April 13, 2006.

Time magazine’s latest cover story, “Dropout Nation,” illustrates a serious educational crisis — not in the nation’s high schools, which are bad enough, but among the nation’s writers and editors. One critical lesson our schools have failed to teach aspiring journalists is that when something sounds too bad to be true, it probably isn’t.

The author of the Time cover story, David Thornburgh, claims “an increasing number of researchers are saying that nearly one out of three public high school students won’t graduate. … For Latinos and African Americans, the rate approaches an alarming 50 percent.” The number of think tank researchers constructing such alarming estimates has not just increased, but doubled. Yet Thornburgh mentioned only one of them, neglecting the other one.

The article claims 29 percent to 36 percent are not graduating high school, and that “it’s a rate that most researchers (both of them) say has remained fairly static since the 1970s.” Couldn’t an editor smell something fishy about that? If one-third of Americans had not graduated high school for 30 years, then one-third of U.S. adults between the ages of about 18 and 48 would now be counted in the census as lacking a high school degree. Huh?

The Census Bureau reports that in October 2003, the civilian non-institutionalized population was 275.3 million. Of the 200.4 million not in school or college, 160.8 million were between the ages of 18 and 64, and only 13.4 percent (21.5 million) of those had not yet completed high school.

Most dropouts don’t stay that way, so studies including temporary dropouts at age 17 or 18 miss the point. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that “a majority of students who drop out of high school at least once go on to earn a high school diploma or alternative credential within several years (63 percent), and many enroll in a postsecondary institution (43 percent).” Of the 676,000 enrolled in the 12th grade in the 2003 Census survey, 97,000 were ages 19 to 22, and 36,000 were older.

Yet the Census Bureau’s surveys are “deceptive,” says Time. “The census count severely underreports dropout numbers, in part because it doesn’t include transients or prisoners.” If we accept Time’s estimate that 67 percent of the 1.4 million prisoners are high school dropouts, that would only raise the dropout rate to 13.8 percent. Adding transients wouldn’t get us any closer to 33 percent.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics checks the labor market status of each year’s high school graduating class. “Between October 2004 and October 2005, about 400,000 people dropped out of high school,” says the BLS, while 2.7 million graduated. The new 407,000 figure translates into a dropout rate of 13.2 percent, and the number of annual dropouts is down from 739,000 in 1980. A record 68.6 percent of high school graduates from the class of 2005 were enrolled in colleges or universities.

Time says “approximately” half of “minorities” didn’t even finish high school, but federal dropout estimates for blacks are not much higher than for whites. The relatively high dropout rates for “minorities” (closer to 25 percent than 50 percent) refer to recent Hispanic immigrants who could not possibly drop out because they never dropped in. The NCES report “Dropout Rates in the United States, 2001” found that “more than half (73.1 percent) of the foreign-born Hispanic youths who were identified as ‘dropouts’ had never enrolled in a U.S. school.”

The real story behind Time’s unreal story is all about money: “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has trained its moneyed eye on the problem, funding ‘The Silent Epidemic,’ a study issued in March that has gained widespread attention.” Gaining widespread attention is the main point, since doing so attracts foundation money. The objective of moneyed foundations, in turn, is to deploy such attention-getting “studies” to lobby for federal money and meddling.

“Silent Epidemic” provides no new evidence to support its claim that “almost one-third of all public high school students in America fail to graduate,” or that “approximately 50 percent” of minority students fail to graduate. It simply cites the same two think tank reports as being “widely referenced by experts and others” (mostly others). Being widely referenced by others (the press) is the main point, since doing so attracts foundation or federal grants.

Time depicts dissenters as a tiny number of stubborn heretics. “There is a small but hardy band of researchers who insist the dropout rates don’t quite approach those levels (29 percent to 36 percent). They point to their pet surveys that suggest a rate of only 15 percent to 20 percent.” Those pet surveys were produced by rather large bands of researchers at the Census Bureau, the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They don’t suggest a dropout rate even as high as 15 percent, much less 29 percent to 36 percent.

The only thing more tiresome than enduring the boredom of a monopolistic public high school is to grow up and be faced with the American media’s naive and fumbling efforts to dream up an endless series of imaginary crises.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow and a nationally syndicated columnist.