Daring to Look Behind the Curtain: The Drop-Out Crisis Redux

“Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college” — does this sound familiar? Possibly at least echoed in the 2012 State of the Union Address by President Obama, who made this charge regarding U.S. public education?:

“We also know that when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”

The opening quote is from a 1947 Time magazine article focusing on John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education in the mid-1940s. The drop-out crisis has been one of many refrains in U.S. politics and education for nearly a century.

Fifty years later, in 1997, The America’s Promise Alliance formed, chaired by General Colin Powell, with the express purpose of confronting the drop-out crisis.

Yet, despite decades of some essential facts — many students persisting in dropping out of school, drop-out rates disproportionately occurring in at-risk sub-groups (high poverty, racial minorities, English language learners), federal and state policies and codes mandating school attendance — we find ourselves in 2012 with President Obama declaring yet another mandate, which was met with applause.

Daring to Look Behind the Curtain

Power, authority, privilege, and winning are certain narcotics — numbing the mind and soul, limiting vision, and removing the possibility of pulling aside the curtain of assumptions to see the reality behind the pageantry.

I have always had an affinity for The Wizard of Oz, similar to my life-long affection for children’s books like Hop on Pop and Go, Dog, Go! of my childhood. The Wizard of Oz, now, offers an important reading about the nature of critical pedagogy as it confronts the enormity of authority.

A critical reading of the classic film of Dorothy and Toto focuses on the dangers of norms — that those caught up in the given are trapped like bugs in amber, never even considering there is a curtain, much less the possibility of looking behind it — and the need for the brave outsider, that person or those people who both consider the possibility of the curtain and act on pulling it aside.

Americans are tragically bound to our ideals — such as our faith in free markets, rugged individualism, and our contemporary tandem of royalty, wealth and fame — and we fear pulling aside those curtains because we don’t want to confront that those ideals may be wrong.

Thus, our leaders are allowed and even encouraged to do the same thing over and over, while lamenting that things never change (or worse, while never even acknowledging that our so-called “crises” are not unique to our time but persistent realities we in fact maintain by the very cures we prescribe). And such is the case with the drop-out crisis redux (Obama’s 2012 incarnation).

As the world rises up against economic injustice, Truthout brings you the latest news and analysis, free of corporate influence. Help support this work with a tax-deductible donation today.

Mandating that students remain in school until 18 or upon graduating is maintaining the status quo while decrying the status quo. Like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the endless accountability spawns of that legislation, creating a national mandate for attending school fails for the same reasons a national curriculum and national testing will fail, for the same reasons that student accountability morphing into school and teacher accountability have and will fail: These are all acts of those who cannot imagine the curtain, and are, in effect, desperately keeping anyone from looking behind the curtain.

So here are just some of the things we should pull aside the curtain to consider:

“The prekindergarten expulsion rate was 6.7 per 1,000 prekindergarteners enrolled. Based on current enrollment rates, an estimated 5,117 prekindergarten students across the nation are expelled each year. This rate is 3.2 times higher than the national rate of expulsion for K-12 students, which is 2.1 per 1,000 enrolled.”Four-year-olds were expelled at a rate about 50 percent greater than three-year-olds. Boys were expelled at a rateover 4.5 times that of girls. African-Americans attending state-funded prekindergarten were about twice as likely to be expelled as Latino and Caucasian children, and over five times as likely to be expelled as Asian-American children.”

And Gilliam (2005) details further that gender and race are distinct elements in how pre-kindergarteners experience school:

“African-American preschoolers were about twice as likely to be expelled as European-American (both Latino and non-Latino) preschoolers and over five times as likely as Asian-American preschoolers. Boys were expelled at a rate over 4½ times that of girls. The increased likelihood of boys to be expelled over girls was similar across all ethnicities, except for African-Americans (?2 = 25.93, p

“Students from some racial- and ethnic-minority groups, and those from disadvantaged families, continued to turn in lower SAT scores on average than those of their white, Asian, and more-affluent peers, patterns that have held their shape for the past decade.”In reading, for instance, white students’ average score was 528, and Asian students’ was 519, compared with 454 for Latino students and 429 for African-Americans. In math, white students outscored blacks by 108 points and Latinos by 69 or more points. Asians’ average math score was 55 points higher than that of white students….

“Students’ scores continued to reflect their family income and parents’ education. Those in the lowest-income brackets, and whose parents had the least education, scored 125 points or more below their peers at the top of the family-income or parental education grid.”

“South Africa under Apartheid was internationally condemned as a racist society. What does it mean that the leader of the ‘free world’ locks up its Black men at a rate 5.8 times higher than the most openly racist country in the world?”

While white males outnumber African American males 5 to 1 in the U.S., the prison population (which exceeds a ratio of 10 to 1 of men to women) is 6 to 1 African American males to white males.

“You Matter. Your Culture Matters. You Belong Here.”

When Diane Ravitch pulled back the curtain and asked “Does President Obama Know What Race to the Top Is?” some responses to her blog clamored to support the ideals we allow to thrive behind “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” — looking always at the student or the teacher and abdicating supreme authority to tests.

But if we dare to pull aside the curtain we must ask: Why is prekindergarten so much like prison? How do males and specifically African American males find their lives so often trapped in exclusion and punishment?

Yes, if we pull back the curtain of the drop-out crisis, and set aside the notion that compulsion is the answer, we can stop to ask: Why are so many students dropping out?

This question is vital since there is no compelling evidence that dropping out of school has ever been a fruitful path for most people to take.

Linda Christensen offers a rare look behind the curtain, an alternative to Obama’s myopic policy:

“The school-to-prison pipeline doesn’t just begin with cops in the hallways and zero tolerance discipline policies. It begins when we fail to create a curriculum and a pedagogy that connects with students, that takes them seriously as intellectuals, that lets students know we care about them, that gives them the chance to channel their pain and defiance in productive ways. Making sure that we opt out of the classroom-to-prison pipeline will look and feel different in every subject and with every group of students [emphasis added]. But the classroom will share certain features: It will take the time to build relationships, and it will say, ‘You matter. Your culture matters. You belong here.’”

Standardizing students is dehumanizing, and likely driving children into our streets. Compulsion doesn’t address that fatal flaw.

Compelling children and young adults to remain in our scripted, test-based classrooms where we can predict how children will be labeled and ranked simply by the accident of their zip codes, the color of their skin, and the language of their homes is inexcusable; it is the act of those who are deaf and blind and numb to the humanity of us all.

Testing, labeling, sorting, and ranking are both the creation and tool of the historical realities of the U.S., a culture committed to the ideals of equity but mired in the realities of racism, classism, and sexism. Testing perpetuates these plagues on our possibilities; testing will never address them.

In hundreds of ways, the Obama administration’s education policies are being orchestrated from behind a curtain where no questions can be asked, not even the wrong ones.

Those with power, authority, and privilege (often built on the pillars of the circumstances of their birth and the fortunes afforded them by test scores) must face the mirror now and ask, “Why are children dropping out?” while making sure they keep their gaze steady into their own eyes where the answers lie.


Get adjusted. (1947, December 15). Time. www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,934231,00.html

Gilliam, W. S. (2005, May 4). Prekindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems. Yale University Child Study Center. www.hartfordinfo.org/issues/wsd/education/NationalPreKExpulsionPaper.pdf