Your “Drop Outs” Are Our Students! An Adult Educator Responds to High School Graduation Rates

I was intrigued to read this article from a principal here in Northeast Ohio:

Behind the Graduation Rate Statistic on Ohio’s School Report Cards

As an adult educator, I am well versed in “drop out” stories from the student perspective, and it is interesting to hear a principal’s side. I have spent the past decade teaching adult students who did not succeed in the traditional K-12 social promotion school system, but are looking for another chance.

As such, I have a strong negative response to some of the language in this piece, which I realize is a symptom of cultural attitudes rather than a personal flaw. The article is intended to be engaging, enlightening, maybe even funny. But there is one message that comes out loud and clear: “Drop outs” are the Undesirables of the K-12 system. Because they mess with the state report card, some consider them “Trash.”

100% of my students are the 4% at this high school (37% in Cleveland) who didn’t complete high school on the “traditional” timeline of four-five years. Here’s what this looks like from the adult education perspective:

People will spend the rest of their lives reacting to your labels.

“Hot Potato.” “Trouble Maker.” “Trash.” “Cash Cow.”

It doesn’t require a public blog post to make these labels explicit to high school kids. They feel it. In their bones. Students get the picture every time they see eyes rolled, hear a condescending tone of voice, or get resistance or silence from adults in response to their proposals for their own education.

I often hear adult educators talk about overcoming self esteem issues among students, and in some cases students do feel badly about themselves because they aren’t a “success story”…yet. But I honestly think that is a smaller percentage than we think. Here’s what I think really happens when you give someone a negative label:

They give you a negative label in return.

When a system marginalizes a group of people, a common response is to develop a collective worldview that subverts mainstream values. In other words, the rejected ones are seen as the “norm” and the system that rejected them is the “undesirable.” This value system can become laced with resentment, jealousy, and just anger. Groups may bond over their common marginalization and a subculture is born.

You can observe this in corrections facilities, in homeless shelters, in public housing…in pockets all over low income or minority communities that adult education programs serve.

When the K-12 system labels someone a “drop out,” they may respond:

“I’m a graduate of the University of Hard Knocks.”

This phrase was first attributed to Elbert Hubbard in 1902. Jay-Z used a variation of this phrase in the 1998 song that launched his stardom: “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).” A rejection of the “soft” system of formal education is countered by valuing “hardship.” Surviving adversity and overcoming struggles is the “diploma,” often to the point of glorifying trauma instead of striving to break the cycle.

School can be a major part of the cycle of trauma.

Example: One of my students, a latina Muslim in hijab, was expelled from school for attempting to punch school staff for making sexist comments. And I respected her for it, honestly. I heard repeated sexist comments from one of my phys ed teachers in high school, and I reported him to the administration multiple times. But he regularly lead our football team to the state championships, so he was apparently too valuable to discipline. Football players made money for the school, so their coach was “too big to fail.”

“Trauma” is really the word that summarizes every situation this Northeast Ohio high school principal describes. It is traumatizing to be perceived and labeled as a drain on the system, especially when we consider the mountain of resources unquestioningly thrown at those who are “too big to fail.”

I know there is no easy solution to this issue, and trauma has a delightful way of replicating itself, repeating year after year and generation after generation. But things can change, and I want to explain what happens to students once they leave the K-12 system if they decide to return to a “non-traditional” program as an adult.

First, you have to formally withdraw from or age out of the K-12 system.

“Adult education” is actually not exclusively for people over 18 years old. The label refers to anyone over 14 years old who has chosen to leave the “traditional” school system for a “non-traditional” path. These services are typically categorized as:

  • Adult basic education: increasing functional literacy (reading) and numeracy (math) skills.
  • GED Test Prep: to earn a high school equivalency diploma (only the GED Test in Ohio; HiSET, TASC, or portfolios in some other states).
  • ESOL: learning English for non-native speakers and/or Citizenship Test preparation.
  • Remedial or developmental: typically provided by community colleges to prepare students for 100-level college courses.
  • Workforce literacy: increasing functional skills for employees or job training.
  • Corrections: these students may have any of the goals above, but take classes while incarcerated.

GED Test takers cannot be counted towards a local school’s graduation rate because students have to formally withdraw from or age out of the K-12 system in order to be eligible to take the test in Ohio. In Ohio, once someone formally exits “traditional” education to pursue their high school equivalency diploma, they are no longer counted as a client of the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). This is confusing because ODE administers the GED test and awards the high school equivalency diploma to those who pass. However, public funding for adult education comes through the Ohio Board of Regents, not ODE. The K-12 “drop out” (to cite the article) becomes an adult education student.

Adult education students are considered part of workforce development, funded through the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA), and regulated by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE). A small number of foundations and private philanthropists, like Barbara Bush and Dollar General, are also committed to supporting the field.

I am painfully aware that the system of adult education cannot provide the same level of resources available to K-12 students. Adult education programs rarely have bus drivers, guidance counselors, nurses, librarians, special education teachers, or nutrition workers on staff. A 10% graduation rate in an adult education program is considered high. Nationally, only one of every three adults who enroll in our programs can be expected to complete more than 12 hours of class. Imagine all the barriers to educational performance expressed in the article (domestic violence, drug abuse, legal troubles, illness, work, children), and apply that to 100% of your student body. That’s adult education.

But for all those barriers, for all the Hard Knocks, adult educators tend to thrive on the challenge. The very first student I tutored was in a wheelchair, in and out of homelessness, and told me she was a “dunce.” Within six months of tutoring for 90 minute sessions twice a week, she had improved from third to fifth grade level in reading. She brought the community college course catalog to class to discuss her next steps after graduation. During the winter she moved to Florida (much easier to get around in a wheelchair without so much ice!) and contacted me to transfer her files to an adult education program there.

Most adult educators have embraced the subculture of overcoming adversity, balancing it with some hope that we can break the cycle of trauma. Sometimes we can instill that hope in our students as well. One adult education graduate can bring an entire family out of poverty, and generally earns $1 million MORE over the course of her lifetime. That statistic doesn’t even factor in the economic benefits of lower dependence on social services, higher health outcomes, and lower crime rates often associated with higher functional literacy levels.

Adult students often recognize later in life that education is a major avenue to improve their quality-of-life. One of my recent graduates repeatedly commented that she had zero income, identifying herself as one of the poorest of the poor. Physical pain often put her in a bad mood. But she attended tutoring two to four times a week, and after almost two years she passed the GED Math Test on her fourth try. She knew a diploma was her best chance to get a steady income and health insurance.

Our biggest barrier in adult education is not our students or their circumstances. Tragedy is everywhere, and so is survival and improvement. Our biggest problem is that we don’t have the resources to provide enough quality chances for every adult who persists and wants to continue learning.

There are over 36 million adults in the USA with low literacy and numeracy skills. Combined, adult education programs serve only 3 million students. Waiting lists are often long, demand for services is increasing, and funding for adult education has decreased from all sources.

Even if we increased K-12 graduation rates to 100%, we would still have millions of adults without a diploma, or with a diploma but low functional skills. Adult education programs really know how to stretch a dollar to achieve a social and economic return on investment.

To prove it, let’s compare some financial statistics from 2012-13:

  • Over 1,000 adult literacy organizations had a combined budget of $160 million, and served over 245,000 students.
  • In the same time period, Harvard University used $4.2 billion (that’s a “B”) in operating expenses to serve around 20,000 students.

The entire membership of ProLiteracy served 12 times the students for 1/26 of the cost per student than Harvard University.

I think my graduates are just as valuable to the community as a Harvard alum. Adult education can break the cycle of trauma and improve a whole community’s quality-of-life.

Adult educators are trying to catch the millions of adults that spill through the cracks and exit the K-12, those that the report card labels “drop outs.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Adult education is a chance for those who want to hang a GED or HSE diploma next to their credential from the University of Hard Knocks. The adult education system is doing the best we can to serve as many students as possible, but we need an investment of political will and funding from all sources, public and private, if we’re going to do this right.

People and circumstances change. An adult may go into recovery, use new treatments or adaptive technologies, leave a dysfunctional family, discover untapped passion, experience religious conversion, get laid off, go to prison, or any number of situations that can motivate someone to take another chance and become an adult education student.

I want to be there when someone decides to make that change. My career has been dedicated to the idea that EVERY student at EVERY age could be “too big to fail.” What about you? I hope you can join me in welcoming adult students with open arms. Let’s provide more people with the resources and opportunities to improve their skills, break the cycle of trauma, and maybe even become a non-traditional graduate.


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