Preparing to zone out in my man cave while watching the 2012 NBA All Star Celebrity game, I was shocked to see our own Secretary of Education running down the court about to make a layup. Regardless of how you feel about his education policy, it turns out Arne has game! As the Huffington Post noted:
On a night when Jeremy Lin was expected to be the star, another Harvard hoopster stole the spotlight. During the game, the least likely celeb in uniform took the rappers, actors, comedians and even a few NBA legends to school...The "celebrity" who had Twitter buzzing most during the exhibition game was U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
It seems Arne had an ulterior motive. Wearing number 26, Secretary Duncan was drawing attention to a startling statistic: every 26 seconds someone drops out of high school in America. Against the reality of an increasingly competitive job market which requires a more highly skilled workforce, this statistic is even more frightening. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that drop outs will have the minimum skills and training needed to access increasingly tech-dependent jobs, let alone post-secondary education.
And the problems don’t just end there. Young adults with low education and skill levels are more likely to live in poverty and to receive government assistance. High school dropouts are more likely to become involved in crime, and have poor health, including poor mental health. Aside from these negative stats, there’s a fairly high economic toll on society. In a recent study in California, researchers found that each annual wave of high school dropouts cost the state over $40 billion over the course of their lives.
The Child Trends Data Bank is an excellent source for statistics on this issue. While dropout rates have declined steadily since 1972, Black and Hispanic males have the highest dropout rates: “In 2009, nine percent of males ages 16 to 24 were high school dropouts, compared with seven percent of females… males make up 57 percent of the dropouts in this age group. Black and Hispanic youth are more likely than whites to drop out of high school. In 2009, five percent of whites ages 16 to 24 were not enrolled in school and had not completed high school, compared with 10 percent of blacks and 18 percent of Hispanics. The rate for Hispanics is in part the result of the high proportion of immigrants in this age group who never attended school in the U.S. Asian youth, with a dropout rate of two percent, had the lowest dropout rate among all racial and ethnic groups in 2009.”
Dropping out of school isn’t a new problem. Back in 1966 James Brown and the Fabulous Flames released “Don’t be a Drop Out”. A testament to his social activism, Brown was known to speak with children about the importance of staying in school and getting an education. The message in James lyrics still ring true:
“You got to get a little learning, now, what do you say?
Without an education, might as well be dead”
A number of programs across the country are working diligently to address the dropout issue. In a recent technical report, the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network in conjunction with Coalition for Community Schools partner Communities in Schools, identified 50 exemplary programs found to be effective in addressing the risk factors for high school dropout.
Increasing awareness about this issue is definitely part of the solution, and in that sense Secretary Duncan’s participation in the NBA All Stars weekend was literally a slam dunk. During a half-time interview at the celebrity game, one of the world’s best known athletes, LeBron James, spent most of his time talking about the high school dropout issue and how more people needed to get involved. To his credit, LeBron has led the NBA’s campaign to keep kids in school in a season-long advertising campaign designed to raise awareness. During the All Star weekend’s Rising Stars Challenge (formally the Rookie Game), the 24-second clock was altered to become a 26 second clock in the interest of keeping this statistic right up front for fans. Kudos to Secretary Duncan and the NBA for raising awareness on this critical issue.
S. Kwesi Rollins is Director of Leadership Programs at the Institute of Educational Leadership (which includes the Coalition for Community Schools).