By NATHAN THORNBURGH / SHELBYVILLE
Sunday, Apr. 09, 2006 Dropout Nation -- The number of high school students who leave before graduating is higher--much higher--than you think.
In today's data-happy era of accountability, testing and No Child Left Behind, here is the most astonishing statistic in the whole field of education: an increasing number of researchers are saying that nearly 1 out of 3 public high school students won't graduate, not just in Shelbyville but around the nation.
For Latinos and African Americans, the rate approaches an alarming 50%.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has trained its moneyed eye on the problem, funding "The Silent Epidemic," a study issued in March that has gained widespread attention both in Washington and in statehouses around the country.
If their grandparents' generation could find a blue-collar niche and prosper, the latest group is immediately relegated to the most punishing sector of the economy, where whatever low-wage jobs haven't yet moved overseas are increasingly filled by even lower-wage immigrants.
Dropping out of high school today is to your societal health what smoking is to your physical health, an indicator of a host of poor outcomes to follow, from low lifetime earnings to high incarceration rates to a high likelihood that your children will drop out of high school and start the cycle anew.
Identifying the problem is just the first step.
The next moves are being made by towns like Shelbyville, where a loose coalition of community leaders and school administrators have, for the first time, placed dropout prevention at the top of the agenda.
Shelbyville, a town of almost 18,000 located on the outer fringe of the "doughnut" counties that ring Indianapolis, seems an unlikely battleground in the war on dropouts. Despite a few oddities--it's home to both the oldest living Hoosier and the world's tallest woman--it is an otherwise pleasantly unremarkable town. The capital is just a short drive away, but miles of rust-colored farmland, mainly cornfields waiting for seed, give the area a rural tinge. Most people live in single-family houses with yards and fences. Not many of them are very well off, but there's little acute poverty, as a gaggle of automotive and other factories has given the town a steady supply of well-paying jobs. Violent crime is rare, and the town is pervaded by a throwback decency. People wave at one another from their cars on Budd Street. They chitchat in the aisles of Mickey's T-Mart grocery store.
For years, Shelbyville had been comforted by its self-reported--and wildly inaccurate--graduation rate of up to 98%. The school district arrived at that number by using a commonly accepted statistical feint, counting any dropout who promises to take the GED test later on as a graduating student.The Federal Government has been similarly deceptive, producing rosy graduation-rate estimates--usually between 85% and 90%--by relying only on a couple of questions buried deep within the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.
The national statistics on the topic are blunt: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, kids from the lowest income quarter are more than six times as likely to drop out of high school as kids from the highest.
On a national level, No Child Left Behind--the metric-heavy school reform that President Bush would like to expand in public high schools--was designed to make schools accountable for their dropout rates.
The Education Trust, an advocacy group for low-income and minority students, issued a scathing report in 2005 about how the Federal Government stood by while states handed in patently misleading graduation numbers: last year three states didn't submit any, and for many states, the figures were clearly inflated.
But it's a nonbinding compact that five states, including Texas, California and Florida, didn't sign.
And critics say the government is trying to slash funding for important support programs, including the Carl Perkins Act, which has funded vocational education across the country since 1984.
TIME.com Print Page: TIME Magazine -- How Germany Keeps Kids From Dropping Out
It may be hard for Americans to fathom a world in which corporations, instead of merely lamenting the shortage of skilled labor, volunteer to train vast numbers of the non-college-bound.
Oh, yeah, and to pay them a bundle along the way.
But under Germany's earn-while-you-learn system, companies are paying 1.6 million young adults to train for about 350 types of jobs, ranging from industrial mechanic to baker to fitness trainer.
And the trainees' average annual salary of $19,913 helps explain why less than 9% of Germans drop out of high school: they can't get in on the action without a diploma.
Private-sector apprenticeships have long been a mainstay of Germany's robust vocational-education program --- so much so that in 2004, 58% of students finished high school with three-year training contracts in hand.
Historically, more than two-thirds of the trainees end up with permanent job offers by the time those contracts are up.
And despite increasing pressure from globalization and a shrinking labor market at home, 23% of all German companies continue to offer apprenticeships, a remarkable statistic, given that it takes into account every one-man shop as well as every megacorporation.
According to a recent survey, 90% of the firms that offer apprenticeships say they do so because skilled employees simply are not available on the job market.
For instance, when BMW decided ten years ago to open a factory in central England, the enginemaker struck a deal with the British government to jointly finance a German-style apprenticeship program.
Likewise, in 1995 a small consortium of manufacturing companies in North Carolina --- that now includes firms headquartered in Germany, Switzerland and Austria --- approached high schools and community colleges in the Charlotte area to develop Apprenticeship 2000, a four-year program for students interested in technical careers.
One reason may be that the closing of several manufacturing plants in the state has scared off potential recruits who often turn to the service sector and never even get the chance to learn about the consortium.
The largest of its member firms, Julius Blum Inc., an Austrian-based maker of hinge, drawer and rollout systems for cabinetry, has already invested some $30 million in machinery for the training program and hired 26 of its graduates.
But Blum apprentice trainer Tony Austin says the company still faces an uphill battle educating students, parents and --- yes --- school counselors about the value of apprenticing.