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Dropout prevention efforts need to begin early

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on January 31, 2013)

Last week the U.S. Department of Education released new data on high school graduation and dropout rates. Nationwide, the graduation rate improved to 78.2 percent in 2009-10, the latest year for which the department has data. Graduation rates ranged from Nevada’s 57.8 percent to Vermont’s 91.4 percent. The data were compiled by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

According to NCES, Tennessee’s graduation rate was 80.4 percent, higher than the national median of 78.6. It is also nearly 12 points higher than the state’s 2004-05 rate of 68.5 percent — a huge increase. Tennessee graduated a higher percentage of its high school students than all but one of our neighbor states.

Tennessee also graduated minority students at higher rates than the national average. The state graduated 78.1 percent of Hispanic students, compared with 71.4 percent nationally, and 75.6 percent of black students, compared with 66.1 percent nationally. Nevertheless, these rates are too low compared with our 82 percent graduation rate for white students.

Tennessee’s Department of Education reported a graduation rate of 82.9 percent for Davidson County in 2010.

Warning signs

A large body of research suggests that absenteeism, incomplete assignments and failing grades in high school are all precursors to dropping out. Students who fail courses in the ninth grade are clearly at risk. Students who engage in high-risk social behaviors are also more likely to quit school.

But the deeper truth is that starting prevention efforts in ninth grade is far too late. Students who are struggling by the end of first grade are already on the path to not graduating. Even at this early stage, students should see themselves as learners, and some sadly do not. For students from at-risk backgrounds, we have to offer quality early childhood education taught by teachers who understand and can promote this positive identity formation.

The reading, cognitive and self-regulating skills that children develop during the first few years, along with numeracy, are the skills they will need to carry them through to the finish line. Teachers in kindergarten and the early grades must be able to help struggling readers develop the reading skills and vocabulary needed for more advanced learning. Developing numeracy is just as important and cannot be neglected. Principals, too, should be on the lookout for students who move frequently between schools within the district. Hopefully, Nashville’s plan to create school networks supervised by lead principals will help to identify those children in danger of falling through the cracks.

If we want students to take the long-term view that education is important to their personal and economic success, educators and policymakers should also take the long-term view by investing in early and elementary education. Engaging parents with their children’s schooling during these first few years also will create the supportive environments needed at home, where expectations are ultimately set.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.