What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? . . . Or does it explode?
These lines are taken from the poem “Harlem” by African-American poet Langston Hughes. Written in 1951, the poem asks what happens when people cannot achieve their dreams because of racial prejudice. More recently, it inspired the title of a 1995 report on high school dropouts by the Educational Testing Service (ETS)—Dreams Deferred: High School Dropouts in the United States. The report uses some of the latest information from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education to discuss the hundreds of thousands of young people who drop out of school each year.
The dreams of these young dropouts are said to be “deferred,” or postponed, because more and more jobs today require a high level of skill and education. By dropping out of high school, teens are “locking themselves out of mainstream society and are barred from good-paying jobs,”2 says the ETS. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, in 1996 high school dropouts earned an average salary of only $14,013, about one-third less than the $21,431 earned by high school graduates. In addition, dropouts comprise half of all heads of households on welfare and more than half of all people in jail.
Despite these sobering facts, 5 percent of all teens in high school drop out each year. This percentage has remained fairly stable over the past ten years. While it may not seem high, in 1996 it represented 485,000 young people— almost half a million. Many of the 1996 dropouts were over eighteen, but almost half—43 percent—were only fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen years old.
It is also important to realize that if 5 percent of students drop out each year, the dropout rate for all four years of high school can be much higher. Four-year dropout rates are especially high in large urban districts. In 1992–1993, one out of four urban districts had a dropout rate that was greater than 35 percent. Dropout rates for Hispanic students exceed the national average and are among the highest in the nation. Dropout rates for African-American students also surpass the national average. Native Americans, too, have a high dropout rate, but because of their relatively small numbers government studies do not show them as a separate group.
“I was invisible”
Why do students drop out of high school? Their reasons are many. Some are personal, such as pregnancy or the need to help support their families. Most, however, are school-related. Most students who dropped out were doing poorly in school, and many felt that their teachers didn’t care. Only 18 percent reported to the NCES that they had passing grades in their last year of school. Often, dropouts felt that they didn’t fit in, or they couldn’t get along with their teachers or fellow students. One New York City teen told researcher Edwin Farrell:
I think people drop out of school [because] of the pressure that school brings them. Like, sometimes the teacher might get on the back of a student so much that the student doesn’t want to do the work. . . . And then that passes and he says, “I’m gonna start doing good. . . .” Then he’s not doing as good as he’s supposed to and when he sees his grade, he’s, “you mean I’m doin’ all that for nothin’? I’d rather not come to school.”
One student talked about older teens in school: “I think kids drop out of school because [they’re getting] too old to be in high school. And . . . they think it’s time to get a responsibility and to get a job and stuff.”
A teenager in Oakland, California, felt that no one in school cared about him:
I was invisible, man. I knew it. I sat in those schools for two years. I sat in the back of the room and I did nothing. I didn’t speak to anyone and no one spoke to me. Nobody said, “Do your work” or nothing. Then one day I said it, “Man I’m invisible here.” I got up and walked out the door and I never went back.
The young man in Oakland did find an alternative school where he was noticed and encouraged and was able to earn a high school diploma. But too many don’t, and they end up with low-skill, low-paying jobs that offer no future. The costs are great, both to dropouts and to society. “Society cannot afford to lose the contributions these individuals have the potential to make,” says Richard Coley, who wrote the ETS report. “Neither can society afford to pay for the dependencies that often follow dropping out of school. The nation can no longer afford to pay the price for ‘dreams deferred.’”
But teens will continue to drop out of school unless ways can be found to help them realize that education is the key to achieving a successful life. Working together, teens and educators can explore who drops out and why and then look for ways to help all young people stay in school and receive the education they need.