When President Obama delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress a year ago, he talked about the national problem of youngsters quitting high school.
"Dropping out of high school is no longer an option," Obama said. "It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country -- and this country needs and values the talents of every American."
And in his back-to-school address last September, Obama again appealed to students: "You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to train for it and work for it and learn for it." A month later, in New Orleans, Obama described his "Race to the Top" program -- a $5 billion pot of money states would compete for to, among other things, reduce the dropout rate and improve performance in low-performing schools.
On Monday, the president unveils his most ambitious program to reduce the dropout rate, in what the White House is calling a "national effort to turn around America's persistently low-performing schools" and to reduce the number of students -- 7,000 each school day, or 1.2 million each year -- who drop out. Obama will discuss his proposals in a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for an initiative founded in 1997 by retired Gen. Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, named The America's Promise Alliance.
The group has as its top priority "ensuring that all young people graduate from high school ready for college, work and life."
The Obama administration's proposals focus on schools with high dropout rates because, according to the White House, some "2,000 of America's high schools produce half of the nation's dropouts." Based on attendance, grades and behavior, dropouts can be identified in sixth grade. The White House believes that by targeting these students early and making education "safe and relevant" and getting parents and communities involved, dropout rates can be lowered. A central element of the program is $3.5 billion set aside to help schools that have graduation rates below 60 percent.
A White House official told Politics Daily that "the policy of identifying low-performing high schools -- using the 60 percent graduation rate threshold -- is entirely new for our administration." Also new is making "our lowest performing schools" a national priority. Each state will identify its bottom 5 percent of underperforming schools (many have done so already, the White House said), with the Education Department providing "School Turnaround Grants" over the next five years for the 5,000 lowest -performing schools. Obama's fiscal year 2011 budget, now before Congress, has $900 million in it for the "Turnaround" program.
The money comes with strings attached: States and school districts will have four options, or model programs to deal with schools with the highest dropout rates:
- Turnaround the school by firing the principal and at least half the staff.
- Restart the school by opening it as a charter school or a school under the management of an education organization with expertise in running schools.
- Close the school and transfer students to a higher-achieving school in the district.
- Transform the school by firing the principal but retaining -- and retooling -- personnel to implement "comprehensive instructional reform strategies."
The Obama White House is also looking at other strategies to keep students from dropping out and to steer them toward college, including financing for alternative high schools and work-based opportunities "to help students catch up and keep up academically, and to get back on track toward a high school diploma." The idea here is to motivate students to show up for class.