Taking Advantage of Michigan’s Opportunity

One of the good news pieces in the Michigan 2011 Kids Count Data Book released last week is that the high school dropout rate in the state fell between 2007 (the first year that Michigan went to the new cohort system that tracks the diploma or GED status of individual young people through 4, 5 and 6 years of high school) and 2010, the most recent information available.  These improvements did not happen by chance.  They happened because of concerted and strategic partnership efforts by schools, districts, cities and towns, health departments, after-school programs, human service agencies and yes, state departments.  They happened because of private philanthropic investment.  They happened because the state overwhelmingly decided that everyone should be in high school until they reach credential.

They also happened because of fear – a broad acknowledgement that the economic and social consequences of dropping out are high and far-reaching.  Costs borne by the young people themselves, our schools, our communities and our state.  As we all know, young people lacking a high school diploma face a labor market that is becoming more and more difficult to successfully navigate.  And, young people without a basic education are less likely to have the maturity and skills needed to parent effectively or the resources to promote the well-being of the next generation.

Despite the fact that this decline in dropout has not resulted in a corresponding increase in “on-time” graduation rates, there is an ever growing group of over-age and under-credited young people who are still connected to school but need more time to finish.  This is an opportunity not to be missed.  Michigan law allows state payment for educating young people toward a high school diploma until they are 20 years old (under certain circumstances, until age 22), resourcing school and community efforts to continue programming through the 5th and sometimes 6th year of high school.

A healthy economy can’t survive our current inequity in graduation rates for low-income students and students of color, and additional time in high school improves equity.  Graduation rates increase for all groups after those additional years, but the fifth and sixth years of high school are particularly beneficial for low-income students and students of color.  This is great news.  We can take advantage of the opportunity to align State and Federal policy to better support young people who are not dropping out by providing multiple pathways to graduation that include more time and flexibility for students.

This year, as every year before, we hope that policymakers use their positions as caretakers of our tax dollars to invest smart from cradle-to-career.  High school dropout is a symptom of success and failures in systems serving kids and families throughout their lives.  Gaps in educational achievement and eventual high school completion between groups of young people experiencing different level of challenge can be traced to the earliest years of a child’s life and continue to grow through their educational careers.  Legislative and Administrative actions over the last several years have diminished services for young people.  Their state budget decisions have placed Federal funding at risk.  This is counter-productive to innovation, partnership building, meaningful education reform, and to a robust economy in Michigan.

There is leadership, however.  In 2008, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mike Flannigan, issued a challenge to schools in Michigan – to curb high school dropout by doing what works.  The Challenge is for all schools: elementary, middle and high, to identify 10-15 young people who aren’t doing so well with the early warning signs of attendance, behavior and coursework and change their trajectory.  The data suggests that schools involved in the Challenge, who intentionally work to prevent high school dropout by utilizing early warning signs and research-based interventions, have lower dropout rates than those who are not part of the Challenge.  This is heady stuff.  Again, opportunity abounds.  We know what works.

We should be encouraged by the possibility of graduating more young people from high school and make sure that the 2013 budget supports that work.

-Michele Corey