The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts

Liam Julian

Civic Enterprises
John M. Bridgeland, John J. DiIulio, and Karen B. Morrison
March 2006

A third of public high school students-and almost half of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans-do not graduate. Most of these youngsters leave school quietly, almost unnoticed, and never return. Despite the shocking numbers (in 2003, 3.5 million youths between 16 and 25 were not enrolled in school and did not have a high school diploma), Americans have remained "silent." Perhaps because they didn't know about it, perhaps because they feel helpless to reverse the trend. But this study-based on a series of focus groups and a national survey of 467 young people who self-identified as dropouts-argues that the epidemic is curable. Almost half of the respondents said that it was uninteresting classes that pushed them to leave school. Moreover, of the 467 people surveyed, more than 60 percent had grade averages of C or better when they stopped attending school. What does this tell us? Most students don't drop out because they're incapable of doing the work and are flunking. Far from it. Most drop out because they think they're wasting their time. (I know what that's like.) This report posits that instituting challenging academic material, discipline, and standards are the easiest ways to fight off the creeping disinterest and malaise that leads to dropping out. Why should we believe that will work? Because when asked what changes would help prevent future students from leaving without a diploma, 70 percent of those surveyed thought schools needed to increase supervision over students, and 62 percent thought there should be more discipline in the classroom. Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote a thoughful Op-Ed about this study in which he quoted the leaders of a successful program that helps dropouts earn entrance to college. These leaders told him that "even for the hardest cases-teenagers with few credits, low grade-point averages, and a host of personal problems-the challenge of a tough curriculum, backed by skillful teaching in small classes and plenty of personal counseling, can be a path to success." Read the study, here.