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Dropout Factories and the School to Prison Pipeline

David Blanding,
David Blanding, Racial Justice Program
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October 31, 2007

The Associated Press released an analysis on October 29 indicating that a number of high schools in the United States have become “dropout factories” – institutions in which “the senior class is made up of 60 percent or fewer of the kids who entered as freshmen.” The report notes that about 1,700 schools currently fit that label, reaffirming 2004 findings from researchers at Johns Hopkins University that, in as many as 1,000 schools around the country, students have a mere 50/50 chance of graduating.

That graduation has become a gamble for our children speaks to an intolerable failure of the current system. Arguably, the nationwide high school graduation rate should be 100 percent. Parents may expect as much when they entrust their students to the nation’s public schools. However, far from approaching such perfection or even mediocrity, our schools are failing outright.

The No Child Left Behind Act is partly responsible for this failure. Under pressure to raise standardized test scores as mandated by NCLB, schools have begun to divest from at-risk children. Principals have resorted to disproportionately harsh punitive measures to weed out underperforming students, while police have all but declared martial law in some schools. The ACLU’s 2007 report, “Criminalizing the Classroom,” shed some light on the problems created by increased police authority in schools, which recent news from New York and Pittsburgh, for example, suggest are growing.

Not surprisingly, children of color are frequently the victims of this shift in dynamic. As the Chicago Tribune reported last month, black students in 49 out of 50 states are suspended at rates significantly higher than would be expected from the proportion of blacks in student populations. Moreover, black students in some states are significantly more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled. Such aggressive school discipline increases the likelihood that students of color will end up in prisons, particularly when high schools are not graduating them.

According to a policy brief from the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, “minority students are four times more likely to attend a high school with very low graduation rates and three times less likely to attend a high school with very high graduation rates than the nation’s nonminority students.” The brief also found that predominantly nonwhite schools are five times more likely than predominantly white schools to promote 50 percent or fewer freshmen to senior status on time.

Like the previous Johns Hopkins reports, the Associated Press’ analysis lends credence to notion that there is an arranged marriage between prison and public schools in which minority children are the dowry. In the absence of supportive educational environments, too many students of color are ushered into prison cells, rather than colleges. If we are to divorce the two, we must begin by holding schools accountable for the graduation of all of their students.