by John Bridgeland
CEO, Civic Enterprises

Robert Balfanz
Research Scientist, Johns Hopkins University

Anyone hoping for a more diverse workplace tomorrow may want to peek inside America’s classrooms today. Their optimism will likely fade.

Nearly one-third of all public high school students —and about one-half of all African Americans, Hispanic and Native Americans—are dropping out and failing to graduate on time with their class. While some school districts are making progress in boosting high school graduation rates, the national rate for graduation is still flatlining at around 69 percent.

“High expectations” and “college readiness” have become clarion calls in efforts to transform America’s public high schools and address the dropout epidemic. It’s not a moment too soon. With more than 1.2 million students dropping out of high school every year, the result is a multi-billion dollar hit on our economy, while eroding the potential for diversity in the workplace.

On the Front Lines of Schools, a recently released research study conducted by Civic Enterprises and Peter Hart Research with America’s Promise Alliance and sponsored by AT&T and the AT&T Foundation, has given us a timely opportunity to “peek inside America’s high school classrooms” and examine how teachers perceive the dropout issue.

“Nearly one-third of all public high school students —and about one-half of all African Americans, Hispanic and Native Americans—are dropping out and failing to graduate on time with their class.”

“Front Lines” follows up on a report in 2006 that gave voice to the perspective of students and a 2008 report that asks parents to weigh in on the issue. This most recent installment, issued in June 2009, showed a significant majority of teachers understand that dropping out is a major problem in America. They cite the very causes dropouts have mentioned—students who chronically miss class, read at low levels, or face life events, such as becoming teen parents or caretakers of siblings. Most cite a lack of parental involvement and relevance of classroom learning to real life needs. One teacher said, “The kids are having a hard time seeing, what, if anything, this education has to do with them after high school.”

Most teachers support reforms that research indicates will help curb dropping out, such as early warning systems, connecting classroom learning to real-world experiences, increasing parental engagement, and challenging alternative learning environments in arts, music and other areas to ignite students failing in traditional schools.

Some findings may seem shocking: less than one-third of teachers believe schools should expect all students to meet high academic standards, graduate with the skills to do college level work, and provide extra support to students to meet those standards. Nearly six in ten teachers believe we should have a separate track for non-college bound students. These teachers’ views are shaped by daunting challenges in the classroom. Teachers reported everything from classrooms that were half empty to schools with violence and gangs.

President Obama is right to make the dropout challenge a top priority and to say that dropping out is not only quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country. Dropouts disproportionately don’t vote, volunteer, or participate in their community. They represent a huge hurdle for those who promote the benefits of a more diverse workplace.

As we look for ways to address the dropout challenge, more must be done to surround teachers with supports and bring them into the college-ready mission that today’s world demands. We must do more to foster the belief that every student, regardless of their circumstances, can graduate from high school, ready for college and the workforce.

John Bridgeland is the CEO of Civic Enterprises and author of “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.” Robert Balfanz is a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University and author of the reports, “Locating the Dropout Crisis” and “What Your Community Can Do to End its Dropout Crisis.” Both are co-authors of “On the Front Lines of Schools: Perspectives of Teachers and Principals on the High School Dropout Problem,” released in June in Washington, DC.