I am knee deep in some incredibly depressing high school dropout statistics as I prepare for a major forum I'm coordinating next week. Part of the problem I'm seeing is an incredible failure of expectations.
For example, in Pennsylvania the target graduation rate is 80%. Yes friends, out of every 100 bright-eyed 9th graders who enters a PA high school, we only expect 80 of them to graduate. I'm not sure what we think the other 20 will be doing with their lives, when most jobs require some kind of post-secondary education, let alone a high school diploma. But there it is. If we can achieve 80%, then we can pat ourselves on the back.
What's even more depressing, though, is that several districts are actually failing this measure, many of them quite miserably. And this is not a Pennsylvania problem. It's a national one.
After weeks of digging through reports on the crisis and how to reconnect disconnected young people to meaningful work and employment, I'm well aware of the complicated nature of the problem and the fact that we cannot expect schools to tackle this issue on their own. This is a community issue that can only be addressed with community-wide solutions (and I'm using "community" as in the "American community.").
What bothers me is that we're shooting so low. Because we've done such a crappy job in the past in so many communities with making sure that our young people are well-prepared for tomorrow's jobs, we figure that doing "better" means that we're OK. But having 40% of African American boys drop out of high school rather than 50% isn't really something for which we should be patting ourselves on the back. We should be asking what else we can do to make sure that 100% are graduating. And even for many of those who are "graduating" we are failing them.
I'm also bothered by the excuses. Yesterday I participated in a forum that brought together educators and employers to discuss how to attract more students to careers in advanced manufacturing where an associate's degree can get kids a job paying $45,000 a year with access to healthcare and tuition benefits that could earn them a Ph.D if they wanted. These businesses are desperate for skilled workers.
What struck me was how little the educators actually LISTENED to what employers had to say about what was needed and how little they were focused on problem-solving. Instead, they used the Q&A time to talk about all the reasons why they couldn't do anything about the situation. They don't have time, they don't have resources, it's a failure of leadership at the top and--worst of all--they just aren't getting the "right quality" of students. The irony is that these same people are frustrated with the excuses they get from kids. HELLO--where do you think the kids are learning this from?!
The Forum that I'm preparing to facilitate next week is allowing me to work closely with 10 kids who have dropped out of high school. Many of them made some poor choices--what 17 year old hasn't? But unlike many kids who are protected by their parents from the consequences of their poor decisions, these kids are forced to deal daily with the errors in judgment they made. What has struck me the most in this process was how uncaring many of the adults in their lives have been, particularly the adults in the educational and social service systems.
I'm also amazed at the resilience and intelligence of these kids and how engaged they can be in the process of resolving their own issues when given the appropriate structures and supports. These kids aren't unmotivated (as many of their teachers believed). They just weren't motivated by huge classes, worksheets and people who figured they were going to fail anyway, so why bother?
Normally in this blog I focus on workplace learning issues and using technology to address them. But the reality is, these kids who are not making it are our workplace future. Each year that a state like Pennsylvania accepts an 80% graduation rate as a "success" is a year that thousands of youth are being sent into the world woefully underprepared for any kind of meaningful employment. Every time we say it's the kid's fault they aren't learning, this is another kid we have failed.
You can't be worried about talent management without wondering what we're going to do if we continue down this road. Baby Boomers are beginning to retire in droves. Who do they think will be paying the taxes to support their Social Security benefits? Who will be caring for them, providing services to them, making the products that they'll want to buy?
This is an issue that should be important to all of us and something we can't afford to continue to ignore. If we don't work together as a community to help everyone be successful, then as a community we are going to fall. I don't have answers, but I sure wish we'd spend some time asking more questions and trying to address what I think is one of the looming crises we'll be facing in the next several years.