By NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippi’s high school dropout problem has been a focus of public and private sector efforts for several years now, and there’s no question it’s a huge drag on the state’s future economic development prospects.
For too long graduation rates hovering in the 60-70 percent range were tolerated, to the detriment of large numbers of young Mississippians who faced bleak employment and long-term earning prospects.
That tolerance changed a few years ago with a raised awareness of the consequences of a high dropout rate, and all school systems are now required to have dropout prevention plans in place and graduation rates have been part of the mix in ranking schools and districts.
Much more public attention has been directed at dropout solutions than ever before, with progress incremental at best. The statewide graduation rate is about 71 percent, the dropout rate 17 percent – numbers still far from acceptable.
That’s the reason some legislators weren’t happy when they learned the Mississippi Department of Education had removed graduation rates from the criteria used in ranking schools and districts. They’re right in insisting that the percentage of students finishing school on time is an important indicator of how effective a school system is.
MDE officials don’t disagree. When lawmakers were told that those rates will return to the accountability standards next year, they were mollified for the most part. A task force is re-evaluating how to use the rates fairly for all school districts in transitioning to a new accountability system when the state adopts the Common Core curriculum next year, and graduation rates will return as an accountability measure after a brief hiatus. In the meantime, the information remains publicly available.
Whatever method MDE develops must keep this important measurement before school boards and administrators as a high-stakes expectation. Low educational attainment in Mississippi’s population is the biggest threat to the state’s capacity for economic growth. Schools must be measured in part on how they help turn that lingering disadvantage around – for the sake of the students, first, and for Mississippi’s future second.
That said, the emphasis in recent years on dropout prevention has recognized that it’s not just the schools’ problem; it’s a community concern. Without community support and community-based initiatives, no school system will be successful in significantly reducing dropouts.
Parents, too, play a critical role, and school and community efforts must find ways to enlist them.
There’s no magic formula for reducing dropouts and increasing graduation rates, but the situation won’t improve without making it an ongoing priority.