BRIAN WILLIAMS Commentary: High school dropouts are hard on city

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Indiana has made significant progress in establishing some of the most demanding standards for primary and secondary students.

However, Indiana’s and the nation’s educational system can also be characterized by low high school graduation rates; no standard for calculating graduation rates; persistent achievement gaps along racial and economic lines; a decline in “second chance” opportunities for high school dropouts; a general inability to attract and retain highquality teachers, especially in underperforming schools; and a bureaucratization of school structure that undermines the flexibility to innovate. These problems significantly contribute to the low rate of high school graduation in Indiana and America.

Dropping out of school not only harms the individual and the individual’s family, but presents significant costs to both the public and private sectors. The average annual earnings for a high school dropout is $18,734. In comparison, the average annual earnings for someone with an associate’s degree is $35,958, and it’s $51,206 for a graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

The impact of high school dropouts on the public sector is equally stark. Approximately three of four state prison inmates have not completed high school. Researchers estimate a 1-percent increase in high school graduation rates would save $1.4 billion in costs associated with incarceration, or about $2,100 for each male high school graduate every year. Further, about a quarter of students who fail to receive a high school diploma go on to receive government assistance.

High school dropouts also impose a tremendous expense on the private sector. The need for skilled workers is reflected in job-growth projections. Jobs requiring only a high school degree will grow just 9 percent by the year 2008, while those requiring a bachelor’s degree will grow 25 percent.

National estimates of high school graduation rates range from 66 percent to 71 percent. Two recent studies of Indiana’s high school graduation rate have shown steady declines. Indiana has the 28thhighest graduation rate in the nation.

Unfortunately, only 28 percent of Indiana high school graduates are academically ready for college. Indiana ranks 49th in the nation on this measure.

Dropping out is not simply the result of chronic academic failure. Dropping out is heavily influenced by both the social and academic experiences of students. Truancy, delinquent behavior, low participation in extracurricular activities, drug use, and changing residences and schools all increase the probability a student will drop out. Factors such as low socioeconomic status, a lack of parental involvement in school, and coming from a singleparent or stepfamily also increase the dropout likelihood. Research suggests that the greater the pupil-teacher ratio, the greater the dropout rate in a school. Research also suggests that the greater the school size, the greater the dropout rate.

If Indianapolis is to become a world-class city where entrepreneurs and corporate executives come searching for intellectual talent, we must improve the educational attainment of our youth. Indianapolis’ children must graduate from high school and they must graduate academically prepared.

What can we do? First, we should not lower requirements for academically unprepared students by putting them on a “track” with low standards. Rather, the skills gap should be closed by providing extra time during the regular schedule in core academic classes, offering catch-up learning activities that keep students engaged, and giving students recovery chances outside of regular school hours to make up failed credits or improve weak skills.

We must also implement more robust teacher-support systems. Systems with interdisciplinary teams that share the same student group and have a common daily planning period are an expensive, but necessary, aspect of reform. We need to devise programs that provide rewards for achievement and give funding and operational support for those that do not meet the standards.

With a focus on students and teachers, Indianapolis can become and remain a world-class city where our future entrepreneurs and civic leaders attain academic success and stay in Indianapolis to realize their dreams.

Williams is a director of Wabash American Benefits Group. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to

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