Cutting dropout rate in our schools starts on Day One

I remember a time when someone could drop out of high school one day and start work on the assembly line at General Motors the next day and make a good living. But those days are long gone. While there has always been a direct correlation between education and income, the chances of earning a good living and being able to support your family without an education in today’s economy are extremely poor. The phrase that “you earn what you learn” has never been more relevant than in today’s increasingly competitive global economy. That is why it is so important that we address the dropout rate and make sure children stay in school.

The dropout rate is a serious concern for our country and affects our global competitiveness. Our nation is failing millions of young people each year, especially those living in some of the most vulnerable communities, who have less than a 50 percent chance of graduating high school. Three in 10 students in the United States will fail to earn a diploma. Dropouts are more likely to be unemployed and will earn less per year than high school and college graduates. However, there are strategies that can target federal investments in education to tackle this problem.

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As the chief sponsor of the Head Start reauthorization in 2007, I firmly believe that we should start at the beginning and invest in high-quality early-childhood education. We have known about the benefits of early-childhood education for decades. The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study from the 1960s in my home state of Michigan found that those students who participated in preschool programs were more likely to graduate from high school.

The return on investment for these programs is well worth the cost and can help prevent our most disadvantaged children from dropping out in the future.

Another proven dropout prevention strategy is afterschool programs. I recently introduced H.R. 3821, the Afterschool for America’s Children Act, which would reauthorize the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

This program provides grants to states to support afterschool programs, which keep students interested in learning and committed to staying in school.

Students who participate in afterschool programs improve in key areas that foster school success, including social and emotional development, avoidance of unsafe behaviors, and other areas that can lead to dropout.

Exposing students to college-level work in high school can help motivate them to complete their degree. The Fast Track to College Act, which I introduced last year, would provide grants to establish early college high schools and dual-enrollment programs. These programs enable students, especially those underrepresented in postsecondary education, to earn an associate’s degree or up to two years of college credits while still in high school. These programs keep students engaged and provide a seamless transition to college. In 2007, then-Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm funded the opening of six early college high schools, including Genesee Early College in my district.

Along with Mott Middle College, also in my district, these schools are enabling at-risk students to earn an associate’s degree.

We cannot give up on the students who have already dropped out of school.

The federal government can help local community partnerships develop systemic dropout recovery models that bring students back into the system. My bill, the Raise Up Act, would provide grants to these partnerships to help integrate an often disparate web of community resources. We need to serve disconnected youth through comprehensive supports including credit recovery, academic counseling, mental health services, child care and job placement. Through these efforts we can re-engage them and set them on the path to attain a secondary school diploma, postsecondary credential and a future career.

As a senior member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, I have been working to write the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). I was hopeful that these dropout prevention and recovery strategies would be a part of this legislation — however, the process has become very partisan, and it does not look like we will get a bill done this Congress. This is especially disappointing to me because I have worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on five reauthorizations of ESEA over my 36 years in Congress, and I strongly believe this reauthorization is long overdue.

In the absence of a reauthorization of ESEA this Congress, we need a comprehensive strategy that incorporates all of the above.

I hope we can set aside partisanship and come together to address the dropout rate and ensure all students graduate high school ready for college and a career.

Kildee is the ranking Democrat on the Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education subcommittee.

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