Time magazine's latest cover story, "Dropout Nation," illustrates a serious educational crisis -- not in the nation's high schools, which are bad enough, but among the nation's writers and editors. One critical lesson our schools have failed to teach aspiring journalists is that when something sounds too bad to be true, it probably isn't.
The author of the Time cover story, David Thornburgh, claims "an increasing number of researchers are saying that nearly one out of three public high school students won't graduate. ... For Latinos and African Americans, the rate approaches an alarming 50 percent." The number of think tank researchers constructing such alarming estimates has not just increased, but doubled. Yet Thornburgh mentioned only one of them, neglecting the other one.
The article claims 29 percent to 36 percent are not graduating high school, and that "it's a rate that most researchers (both of them) say has remained fairly static since the 1970s." Couldn't an editor smell something fishy about that? If one-third of Americans had not graduated high school for 30 years, then one-third of U.S. adults between the ages of about 18 and 48 would now be counted in the census as lacking a high school degree. Huh?
The Census Bureau reports that in October 2003, the civilian non-institutionalized population was 275.3 million. Of the 200.4 million not in school or college, 160.8 million were between the ages of 18 and 64, and only 13.4 percent (21.5 million) of those had not yet completed high school.
Most dropouts don't stay that way, so studies including temporary dropouts at age 17 or 18 miss the point. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that "a majority of students who drop out of high school at least once go on to earn a high school diploma or alternative credential within several years (63 percent), and many enroll in a postsecondary institution (43 percent)." Of the 676,000 enrolled in the 12th grade in the 2003 Census survey, 97,000 were ages 19 to 22, and 36,000 were older.
Yet the Census Bureau's surveys are "deceptive," says Time. "The census count severely underreports dropout numbers, in part because it doesn't include transients or prisoners." If we accept Time's estimate that 67 percent of the 1.4 million prisoners are high school dropouts, that would only raise the dropout rate to 13.8 percent. Adding transients wouldn't get us any closer to 33 percent.