Some 30 years ago, my first job out of college was as a child welfare investigator for the State of Tennessee. Occasionally, I had to pull a child out of squalor or away from a perpetrator. Sometimes things would go easily, tucking the child in my red Volkswagen and rolling off to a safe place. Other times, I was backed by a SWAT team. In my role, I opened the gate for these children into a system of social services and foster care. Unfortunately, these necessary changes in residence often translated into educational disruption. The brutal reality for children in foster care is that they are relocated frequently, and all too often fall behind academically and socially. This dynamic contributes to the cycle of generational family dysfunction as low academic expectations and school failure severely limit the life opportunities of these children I was trying to protect.
These experiences cemented in my soul the importance of education, particularly finishing high school, as the route out of poverty, ignorance, and desperation. That conviction remains, but I fear a high school diploma is becoming an illusion for hundreds of thousands of students as the process to earn it remains tightly tied to an antiquated manufacturing model.
The benefits of a high school diploma are clearly established: it’s a prerequisite for higher education, a requirement for entering the military, and a ticket to better earnings. The economic advantage of finishing high school is real – $10,300 more a year for graduates compared to dropouts. Having close to a half million more dollars flow through the pockets of a high school graduate compared to a dropout make a big difference over a working lifetime.
The negative consequences to society of not receiving a high school diploma are staggering. According to an Alliance for Excellent Education, the nation could save as much as $18.5 billion associated with crime if the high school male graduation rate increased by only 5 percentage points. That would translate into a decrease in annual incidences of assault by nearly 60,000. It would also prevent nearly 1,300 murders, more than 3,800 occurrences of rape, and more than 1,500 robberies. Cutting the number of dropouts in half would save $7.3 billion annually by Medicaid. These are real numbers; these are real lives.
Alternative education has a major role to play in addressing this issue. Alt ed is a term for programs that focus on students who find little success in the structure of traditional high schools. Alternative schools are focused on academics and minimize the time wasters like class changes and lunch. They often have shorter days, multiple shifts, flexible attendance, credit for jobs, and are small in scale. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 650,000 students are enrolled in public alternative schools. That’s 4.3 percent of the 15 million high schoolers in public education.
Alternative schools enroll students who appear unlikely to graduate due to any number of reasons and give them a chance to meaningfully and legitimately earn a diploma. But there are many more than 650,000 kids who need that option. When you roll up the number of young people affected by homelessness, addiction, abuse, the foster-care system, have a parent in prison, have children of their own or parents to care for, or have other risk factors, the sum crests over two million teenagers.
Public high schools have a tough job, but getting a diploma in the hands of as many students as possible is surely one of their top goals. Public school organization around the manufacturing model of the late 19th century (7.5 hours for 180 days) remains a major obstacle to increasing graduation rates and improving the lives of at-risk students. By contrast, manufacturing models have exploded with creativity and expanded boundaries in recent decades.
Mass customization and just-in-time delivery are two platforms of today’s manufacturing processes. Dismissing one-size-fits-all thinking and avoiding bloated inventories are signs of healthy companies. Schools could customize learning providing students with what meets their needs and societies’ needs. Schools could also restructure the current model that houses 50 million children every day in 100,000 locations. Such changes would send ripples through an economic system designed around the manufacturing model. Parents have grown to depend on schools caring for their children from eight to three, five days a week. But intellectual and personal growth are more important than the childcare function, and our market-based economy will adjust, provide solutions, and a new normal will be born.
Another giant step in manufacturing that public education could implement involves breaking down artificial barriers and utilizing every resource that can benefit students. In manufacturing, multi-regional and global processes abound. Pull parts from around the world, assemble some components here, others there, finish assembly in yet another location before shipping to still other spots for distribution. Rely on technologies, a global talent pool, the speed of shipping, the price of labor, and the seams of open borders to design, build, and deliver what the world needs.
Unfortunately, too many school districts have a fortress mentality and behave defensively. Keeping everything in-house and executed exclusively by district personnel builds walls keeping out experts and laser-focused services that can bolster areas of lagging performance such as improving the graduation prospects for at-risk students.
Yes, public high schools have a tough job, but they don’t have to do it alone. More at-risk students would earn high school diplomas and demonstrate stronger academic skills if public education would admit its own shortcomings, loosen its grip on the market, and call upon resources at its fingertips that do a better job at a better price when it comes to reaching at-risk kids. Over a half million teenagers who should have been there won’t participate in graduation ceremonies this spring across our country — and that is an unexcused absence.