Roanoke Times & World-News. Wednesday, Feb. 12, 1986

The New York Times

More than a fourth of U.S. quit school


NEW YORK_Teachers College Record, the quarterly published by Preachers College at Columbia University, will devote its spring to-the problem of high school dropoputs.

Horace Mann, the college's patron saint, would have been surprised. About 150 years ago he predicted that universal education would become "the great equalizer" that was sure to prevent the exploitation of the poor by the rich. Once schools were opened wide, he was certain, all would rush in.

Nothing since has proved Mann wrong in his assessment of education as an indispensable factor in eliminating poverty and reducing inequality, but he was wrong in his optimistic forecast that once education became universally available, every youth would rush to get it. Instead, the country today faces an epidemic of dropouts and the threat of leaving a permanent, unemployable underclass.

More than one-fourth of all young people, and more than one third in New York City, drop out before high school graduation. Even those figures tell an incomplete story. Most dropouts are black, Hispanic or poor white students. In some inner cities the dropout rate is closer to half the school population. Dale Mann, professor of education administration at Teachers College, says teen-age unemployment in inner cities may be twice the unemployment rate of the Great Depression.

Educators, politicians and social reformers realize that the dropout situation is at the heart of most social problems-the economy, the crime rate, personal alienation and family instability.


In New York City, a successful principal, Dr. Victor Herbert, has been named assistant superintendent for dropout prevention.

Last month several inner-city schools in Boston began a campaign to create incentives to prevent student absenteeism, the prelude to dropping out. Randomly selected students, if present in their assigned classes, get certificates for a free McDonald's or Burger King hamburger, movie passes or a variety of other prizes. In addition to the reward itself, said one principal, "it provides excitement and mystery."

In New York, Joseph S. Murphy chancellor of the City University of New York, which has a network of senior and community colleges, gave every high school Feldman a promissory note of admission to one of those institutions upon successful graduation from high school.

Perhaps the most spectacular antidote to dropping out, however, was illustrated five years ago by Eugene Lang, a wealthy businessman, when he tore up his prepared commencement speech and spontaneously told the graduating class of his old elementary school in Harlem that he would pay each youth's full college tuition if he or she graduated from high school. Five years later, all of them qualified.

The story received nationwide attention. It prompted Education Secretary William J. Bennett to urge businesses to follow Lang's example with similar personal promises. Such aid to students, he said, could be more effective than the grants and loans by the federal government. (Bennett ignored the fact that Lang had pledged to pay the entire cost of tuition, where federal support in most instances covers only a fraction of the bill.)

The Lang episode has led to much guessing as to why the formula was so successful. Many commentators agreed that just as important as the money was the signal to the students that somebody cared. Suddenly they had become more than anonymous bodies in a huge school.

Horace Mann could not have predicted that urban schools would some day grow into monstrositires housing 2,000 to 5,000 restless adolescents whom few of those in charge know by name. Lost in the mass, it is easy to founder, fail and eventually to give up.

Some observers have proposal alternative systems of schooling, with part of the time spent in school and part spent in the world of jobs or community service. But in a recent discussion on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, Herbert said that while there may be value in alternatives, "there's got to be a way to deliver education better in the. traditional school."

"We know that there is no guarantee that the high school diploma; leads to something," he said. "And so you say to a young person, 'Sit through chemistry and physics and biology, even if you don't know why. Do it.' And he says, 'But I have a cousin who graduated from high school, maybe even college and he doesn't have job. Why should I do it?"

Responding to such questions Gov. Mario M. Coumo of New York recently talked of plans to have private and public employers in the state guarantee a job for everyone who graduates from high school"

Other ways of reducing drop-outs, and thus the potentially cost and growing danger to society could be part of general school reforms.

Unwieldy large schools to could be divided into smaller units, perhaps with no more than 500 students each led by carefully selected managing teachers responsible to the principal of the entire institution. Instead of the present deans who are mainly disciplinarians each unit might have its own master or managing teacher to who students could turn to with personal and academic problems before they grow beyond solution. This might respond at least in part to the recent demand by the Committee for Economic Development, a national organization of business leaders, that school pay, more attention to the attitudes that make young people employable.Students' families must also be enlisted. It is worth noting that the children of some recent immigrant groups, where family ties are strong, are not dropping out, even if they arrive without knowledge of English.Possibly most crucial, particularly for youths who lack home support, is an early start, perhaps at 3 years of age or even sooner, in an environment conducive to literacy and the desire to learn. Experiments have shown that early childhood education of high quality can give children the skills and attitudes needed for success in school and life. Sending students to high school without such skills and attitude virtually forces them to drop out, first out of school and later out of society.