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The Dropout Crisis

April 16, 2006

By Jay P. Greene

It is a bit of a cliché to point out that Baltimore City Public Schools are not performing up to par. Things have gotten so bad that the state recently tried to take over 11 failing schools. Nonetheless, sometimes it is useful to remind ourselves of the magnitude of the problem. In a new Manhattan Institute study, we estimate that fewer than half of the students who enter the city’s public schools earn a diploma. Further, African-American males are disproportionably likely to suffer from the dropout epidemic. Unless Baltimore pursues dramatic reform of its school system, more than half of its students will be condemned to a life of limited opportunities.

For the class of 2003, the most recent year for which data are available, we calculate that the overall graduation rate in Baltimore was only 48 percent. There is a better chance that a coin-flip will turn up “heads” than that a student entering the ninth grade in a Baltimore public school will earn a regular diploma. This horrific graduation rate is lower than many other large metro school districts. Of the 100 largest school districts in the United States, Baltimore City Public Schools ranks 91st in overall graduation rate. Baltimore graduates substantially fewer students than other urban school districts such as Philadelphia, Long Beach, Calif., and Miami, though none of these other districts performs particularly well either.

Male students, particularly African-American males, fare particularly worse in Baltimore. While 58 percent of African-American females graduate, slightly below that of the national average, only 39 percent of African-American males in Baltimore earn a regular diploma, far lower than the national rate (48 percent), and lower than most other major metropolitan school districts.

In part, minority males likely leave school because they are not learning sufficient skills for attendance to be worth their time. Short-term opportunities in the marketplace might particularly entice minority male students out of the classroom when they do not learn even basic skills. These opportunities could include jobs in construction, or even in the underground economy. Thus, if Baltimore is to improve its graduation rate, it needs to improve the academic achievement of students so that the opportunities provided by schooling — better-paying jobs over the long term, and the opportunity to go to college — outweigh the short-term pull of the labor market for dropouts.

How do we improve academic proficiency? Promising reforms focus on improving the incentives for educators to produce success for their students. Unfortunately, educators face no meaningful consequences when they make wise or foolish decisions about the education of children. The current system punishes no one but the children when students fail to acquire the basic skills that would permit them to learn, stay in school, and graduate. There are also no rewards for successful educators who prevent these failures.

The city should look toward systemic reforms that alter the incentives facing educators. In particular, Baltimore should consider programs that strengthen the accountability faced by public schools and their employees, such as merit pay for teachers or sanctioning low performing schools. The city might also consider school choice policies, such as vouchers or charter schools, which allow dissatisfied to take their child to another school that they prefer. Research shows that these reforms that focus on the incentives of public schools significantly improve performance.

To be certain, Baltimore is not alone in the graduation crisis. There is near consensus that too few students across the nation earn a diploma each year. However, the city is a major offender and needs to look for ways to improve the education it provides. When graduating high school is only a 50-50 proposition, it is time to consider dramatic changes to the system.

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