Confronting our dropout crisis

A comprehensive approach is the only way to solve the problem

Across the state students are settling into a new school year. Unfortunately, more than 8,000 of their former classmates won’t be joining them—the result of a dropout crisis that affects us all.

We do a lot of things right with our schools in Massachusetts, so it doesn’t fit that this many of our students drop out each year. Our public schools are widely regarded as among the best in the nation, and our students produce some of the top test scores in the world.

Unfortunately, these successes are not reaching all of our young people. While our statewide dropout rate has fallen a few tenths of a percent in recent years, the bottom-line is this: We are producing, every year, an average of 8,500 dropouts – kids who are not equipped to be financially self-supporting, or active, prepared members of our communities. 

That’s 8,500 this year, 8,500 last year—and 8,500 next year if we don’t do anything different from today.

The consequences of this achievement gap extend far beyond the schoolhouse doors.

Education is the best economic driver we have, providing us with stability and growth—even in a tough economy. Employers come to Massachusetts because of our educated workforce. Each year that our dropout rate eats away at this competitive advantage, we undercut economic development and job creation in our state.

Our dropout rate impacts the financial health of our state in more direct ways. A Northeastern University study showed that Massachusetts dropouts are less likely to have health insurance than those with more education and are more likely to depend on public assistance. At even greater cost to society in terms of the safety of our communities and its drain on public dollars, dropouts make up 70 percent of our jail and prison population, at an average annual cost of about $46,000 per person.

What can’t be quantified, but what is equally important, is how we let down our young people when we ignore this problem. Massachusetts is the birthplace of public education. Our continued commitment to education is—more than in any other state—a key part of who we are. When we stand by as thousands of students drop out of school each year, we fail to live up to one of our most fundamental values.

In recent months, policymakers on the state and municipal levels have begun to address the dropout rate by proposing to raise the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18. New Hampshire is seen as a success story for this compulsory age strategy. However, as education experts will tell you, raising the compulsory school attendance age in the Granite State has been successful only as part of a comprehensive approach that focuses largely on increasing investment in dropout prevention programs and alternative education plans in targeted districts.

Raising the compulsory age is a step in the right direction toward finding solutions to the dropout crisis. It resets our message to young people—signaling that we expect their best, rather than that we accept them leaving school before they’ve finished. It also recognizes our fundamental change from an agrarian to a knowledge-based economy. But for real success in lowering the dropout rate, we must look deeper.

Meet the Author

Sonia Chang-Diaz

Senator, Massachusetts Senate
I have proposed “An Act to Prevent Students from Dropping Out of School,” a bill that calls on parents, teachers, administrators, businesses, and the state to come together to keep students on a path to graduation. The bill, which will be heard by the Joint Committee on Education on Tuesday, improves systems for identifying students who may be at-risk of dropping out, providing schools with better data to target resources to kids in need. It matches at-risk students with graduation coaches tasked with helping to guide them to success. It creates better communication between schools and parents when a child is suspended or expelled, and promotes the availability of alternative educational options for students who leave school before graduating.

The dropout crisis affects us all, so we all have a role to play in finding solutions. We’ve proven time and time again that we are capable of incredible successes in our schools. If anyone can solve this problem, it’s us.

Sonia Chang-Díaz is serving her second term as State Senator of the Second Suffolk District. She is the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Education.