Gov. Jerry Brown presented a 12-point education plan during his campaign. He wisely crafted a proposal that encompassed multiple elements of public education, among them the cost of higher education and changes in the state testing program. Although each component of that platform could spur positive change, Brown’s interest in raising high-school graduation rates is especially encouraging.
To make the best use of state resources and improve graduation rates, the California Department of Education would be smart to focus efforts on male students. According to the department, males outpace females in dropout rates at every level from grade 7 to grade 12. Research also underscores his observation that “kids who cut class and drop out of school all too often end up on the wrong side of the law, behind bars instead of desks.”
In 2009, the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University released The Consequences of Dropping Out of High School, a publication that outlined several disturbing findings regarding employment, earnings, incarceration, teen and young-adult parenting experiences, and family incomes of high-school dropouts and their peers. One of the bleakest findings centered on the relationship between school attrition and the likelihood of being imprisoned. Based on national data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, the authors found that among 16-to-24-year-olds, “nearly 1 of every 10 young male high school dropouts was institutionalized on a given day” from 2006-2007.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports that 93 percent of adult prisoners in the state are men and 95 percent of juvenile inmates are boys. Clearly, an effort by the governor to improve male graduation rates could reduce the prison population. Although his plan lacks sufficient detail, the governor sensibly recognizes the importance of before- and after-school programs in this effort.
Yet moving from hope to results requires at least two formal, concrete decisions.
First, the state Department of Education should commission a large-scale study to quickly identify which programs and initiatives are most successful and how to eliminate costly efforts that yield limited returns. Students’, parents’, and educators’ voices should drive policy decisions. If policymakers value feedback provided by these communities, they can make prudent choices likely to receive broad-based support.
The second step is to maximize strained state resources by concentrating on schools that serve economically disadvantaged students. Academically, schools and districts should implement (or adapt) such projects as the Early College High School Initiative and the Boys in Literacy Initiative (BILI) based in Alexandria, Va. Doing so will provide opportunities for scholastic enrichment that will broaden the worldview of children who live in poverty. More importantly, the initiatives can lead students to the knowledge, skills, and credentials that are needed to advance in the workplace. Socially, policymakers should expand participation in sports and clubs to foster youngsters’ sense of attachment to their schools and peers through positive camaraderie and chances to work toward common goals.
Regardless of the specific programs that are chosen, school leaders would be sensible to create recruitment and retention plans that ensure participation among at-risk students, particularly boys. In addition to traditional methods for announcing school programs (posters, class announcements, and so forth), schools should link with research professionals and volunteers, especially from nearby colleges and universities, to strategically draw in students who are having problems at school. For instance, disciplinary records should be analyzed to identify students who have the most recurring problems, and attendance data ought to be reviewed to capture those young people whose absences exceed a threshold of concern. Working with students whose office referrals and/or absences exceed 10 percent is a good place to begin. Invitations for inclusion in extracurricular outlets should then be sent to each student and his family. As University of Wisconsin Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings has documented, educators’ decisions to visit students’ homes to meet parents and encourage school involvement and success can be highly beneficial.
Some critics might argue that placing an emphasis on helping boys earn diplomas discriminates against girls. However, given the dire economic constraints on education in California, the governor must carefully target efforts to achieve real gains. Put simply, boys have lower graduation rates and consequently face far greater rates of incarceration than do girls, along with greater unemployment and under-employment. The high cost of incarceration and resulting family disruption is far more expensive than money wisely spent to improve male graduation rates.
During the campaign, Brown presented a sweeping agenda for educational reform and improvement. It’s time to deliver.
Carla R. Monroe earned a Ph.D. in educational studies from Emory University and was a research scientist with the University of Georgia. Send comments via the opinion editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.