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Although the United States spends more on education than many other countries, the nation has failed to achieve the same positive outcomes than have been accomplished elsewhere, even in countries where per student spending is far less. Because education is widely regarded as the key to personal and professional success, it is important to identify current problems and potential opportunities for improvement in the nation’s approach to educational funding and delivery. Moreover, the arcane manner in which public schools are funded in different parts of the country, indeed within each state, combined with changing expectations concerning what curricular offerings are best suited for the 21st century marketplace has called into question the fundamental purpose of American schools today. The purpose of this paper is to consider what it means to be an educated person in America and the roles our high schools do, should, can play in American society and how current curricular offerings are failing to provide public high school students with the education they will need to succeed in an increasingly globalized and competitive marketplace.
PRIMARY MISSION OF THE NATION’S PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS
Given the enormous amounts of taxpayer resources that are used for the nation’s public high schools, it is important to evaluate their effectiveness in terms of achieving their primary mission (Cornman, Zhou and Howell 2017). In the past, this mission has focused on promoting education in the so-called “three Rs,” but innovations in technology and ubiquitous computing have made many of the former curricular offerings obsolete or irrelevant today. Indeed, an entirely new skill set is needed to compete in the 21st century marketplace, but some of the fundamental elements of public high schools’ mission remain unchanged, including the need to develop good citizens who can contribute to American society in meaningful ways.
Notwithstanding the educational funding that is routinely provided the states by the federal government, though, the primary mission of the nation’s public high schools is determined by each of the 50 state governments (except for the District of Columbia which is overseen by the U.S. Congress) (Parker 2016). Despite the introduction of Common Core standards that are being used by many states and the use of standardized testing regimens, the fact that the primary mission of the nation’s public high schools is decided on a state by state basis means that the type of education that is received by students in the Bronx may differ widely from that received by students in Fairbanks, Alaska, for example.
Furthermore, there are also significant within-state differences in the views about the primary mission of public high schools, making any across-the-board evaluation of their effectiveness difficult if not impossible. In this regard, Parker, a policy analyst at Education Commission of the States, emphasizes that, “State constitutions vary on whether they include language about public school funding, religious restrictions, the education of disabled students, the age of students, the duration of the school year and the establishment of state higher education systems” (1) Nevertheless, in an educational context, in order to improve anything it must first be measured and it has become increasingly evident that this mish-mash of state-level legal frameworks and differing priorities has contributed to ineffective educational systems that are not engaging high school students and causing far too many to drop out before they complete their secondary education as discussed below.
CURRENT DROPOUT RATES IN THE NATION’S PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS
While each of the 50 states has its own constitutional language and mission for its public schools, it is reasonable to posit that these missions are unachievable when students leave the school systems altogether before they complete their studies. According to researchers with the National Center for Education Statistics, millions of young people are dropping out of American high schools and far too many fail to secure their general educational equivalency credential, dooming them to a lifetime of suboptimal employment opportunities (McFarland & Cui, 2018). For instance, according to McFarland and Cui (2018), “During the period from October 2013 and October 2014, more than 567,000 15- to 24-year-old students dropped out of school without achieving their high school credential. These event dropouts accounted for 5.2 percent of the 10.9 million 15- to 24-year-olds enrolled in grades 10 through 12” (p. 3).
There were some income-based differences in the dropout rates across the country as well, with students from higher income families experiencing a far lower dropout rate compared to their less advantaged counterparts. For example, McFarland and Cui (2018) add that, “The event dropout rate for individuals from high-income families in 2014 was 2.6 percent, while the rates for individuals from middle- and low-income families were 5.4 and 9.4 percent, respectively” (p. 3). There were also some modest differences with respect to the sex of high school students and whether they had disabilities or not as depicted in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Percentage of grade 10-12 dropouts among persons aged 15 through 24 years by selected characteristics (2014)
Source: McFarland & Cui, 2018
Furthermore, despite sustained increased funding for the nation’s public high schools, the dropout problem has only worsened in recent years. In this regard, McFarland and Cui (2018) conclude that, “Over the past 40 years, event dropout rates trended downward, decreasing from 6.7 percent in 1974 to 5.2 percent in 2014, although there has been fluctuation in the rate.
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In recent years, the event dropout rate increased from 3.0 percent in 2010 to 5.2 percent in 2014” (p. 8). Taken together, these trends should serve as a wake-up call for educators that current strategies are failing to keep public high school students sufficiently engaged, thereby abrogating their responsibilities to achieve the fundamental missions as set forth in their respective state constitutions.
These trends are all the more troubling because high school education has been the focus of a growing body of scholarship as well as increased funding over the past several years, indicating that simply throwing more money at the problem is not a viable solution. For example, the U.S. Department of Education reports that there has been a steady increase in federal funding for public elementary and secondary education across the nation over the past several years. For instance, according to Cornman, Zhou and Howell (2018), researchers for the federal government, funding increased by 3.3% during the period from Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 and FY 2015 (i.e., from $557.50 billion to $575.8 billion after adjusting for inflation).
Moreover, these increases in educational funding were achieved immediately following similar increases of 1.7% during the period from FY 2013 to FY 2014 (again, after adjusting for inflation) (Cornman et al. 2018). Similar increases were also identified for student support expenditures and teacher salaries (Cornman et al., 2018). There were some significant differences in educational funding levels identified between the states, however, ranging from a high of $20.744 in New York (followed closely by Alaska, the District of Columbia and Connecticut) to a low of $16,047 in Wyoming (followed closely by Massachusetts), as representative examples (Cornman et al., 2018). Nevertheless, a study by Barth, Cebula and Shen (2016) found that inadequate spending for primary education is one of the major factors that has caused the steady increase in high school dropout rates in many American cities.
Further complicating the evaluation of the effectiveness of public high school districts in achieving their primary mission in terms of graduating students rather than losing them through attritional dropouts is the manner in which these data are calculated. In this regard, a study by Koenig and Hauser (2010), writing for the the National Research Council and the National Academy of Education, report that, “If the purpose [of dropout statistics] is to describe the level of education of the population, what matters is people’s eventual level of education, not what kind of diploma they received or how long it took them to earn it” (p. 2).
Conversely, if the purpose of dropout statistics is to provide an analytical framework in which the effectiveness of public high schools in terms of their achieving their primary missions of graduating students within a 4-year period, though, then these variables assume greater importance for decision-making purposes (Koenig & Hauser, 2010). For example, deciding whether to include high school students who drop out but go on to secure their GED equivalency credential in dropout rates represents one major variable, while determining which schools to credit or assign responsibility for students who transfer from one high school to another who then graduate or drop out are other variables that must be taken into account when evaluating these data (Koenig & Hauser, 2010).
Beyond the foregoing considerations, Koenig and Hauser (2010) also recommend that public high school districts used their existing student data in more informed ways to help identify those students who are at most risk of dropping out so that early interventions can be implemented. For example, Koening and Hauser (2010) advise that, “Improving graduation rates in this country requires more than simply reporting accurate rates. To truly improve outcomes for students, data systems need to incorporate information that enables early identification of at-risk students” (p. 2). The studies to date have identified several variables that can be used for this purpose, including: (a) frequency of absences, (b) failing grades in reading or math, (c) poor behavior, (d) being over age for grade, (d) having a low grade 9 grade-point average, (e) failing grade 9, or (f) having a record of frequent transfers between schools.
There have been some other variables identified to date that have been shown to exacerbate the dropout rates in many public high school districts. For instance, a study by Gorlitz and Gravert (2016) found that the curriculum reform initiatives that have been implemented by many public school districts across the country that were designed to improve students’ academic performance have only served to worsen the dropout rate. Based on their analysis of curriculum reform initiatives and their effects on academic performance and dropout rates, Gorlitz and Gravert (2016) conclude that, “The reform increased the curriculum requirements in high school, for instance, by reducing the freedom of choice in course selection. The results show that high school dropout rates increased for males and females alike” (p. 530). Of course, no right-thinking educator would argue against raising the educational bar to motivate high school students to achieve their best and to provide them with the knowledge and information they will need to succeed later in life, but the outcome of these curriculum reform efforts beg the question as to what price….....
Barth, J. R., Cebula, R. J. & Shen, I. L. (2016). Is the high school dropout rate an increasing function of the proportion of the population in the US cities that is Hispanic? Exploratory evidence. Applied Economics Letters, 23(15), 1099-1103.
Cornman, S.Q., Zhou, L., Howell, M.R., and Young, J. (2017). Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education: School Year 2014–15 (Fiscal Year 2015): First Look (NCES 2018-301). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Gorlitz, K. & Gravert, C. (2016). The effects of the high school curriculum on school dropout. Applied Economics, 48(54), 45-53.
Jacobs, J. (2016, December). High school of the future. Education Digest, 82(4), 37-42.
Koenig, J. A. & Hauser, R. M. (2010). High school dropout, graduation, and completion rates: Better data, better measures, better decisions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
McFarland, J. & Cui, J. (2018, March). Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Parker, E. (2016, March). Constitutional obligations for public education. Education Commission of the States, 1-23.