Stemming the Tide Is Not Enough

07/01/2010 09:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our nation's appalling and persistent high school dropout rate is thankfully getting the attention it deserves. While I might quibble with the quality and effectiveness of actual and proposed programs, I can at least be thankful for the renewed focus on increasing the number of high school graduates who are ready for success in work and post secondary learning.

This same focus and attention needs to be extended to the millions of young people already out of high school but without a diploma. Many are without jobs or in low-wage, often temporary, work that is unconnected to an education, training, or career. The current recession has particularly punished these youth, many of whom are poor and minority. Drifting in and out of work and without significant prospects, they are missing opportunities for learning that would prepare them for high-wage work and successful careers. Moreover, the cost to society is enormous and growing.

The data regarding these young people are alarming. For example:

• From a 2009 report from the Center for Labor Market Studies: There were nearly 6.2 million total dropouts in 2007 (1,817,429 ages 16-19 and 4,356,454 ages 20-24).
• From a 2010 report entitled Building a Learning Agenda Around Disconnected Youth: In 1978, about 52% of male teens ages 16-19 were employed. By 2006, the rate had dropped to 37%. In the first half of 2009, the rate was 28% (lower for African-American teens).
• From a 2009 Congressional Research Service report: Females are more likely than males to be disconnected. Overall, 6.4% of females ages 16-24 were disconnected in 2008, compared to 3.8% of males the same age.

At Big Picture Learning, we wanted to understand the needs and the circumstances of these young adults by starting not only with such data but also with their stories and from those stories developing insights about how we might provide innovative programs that are first different then better. We see little to be gained from improving flawed designs that produce such data. A different design is needed, one worth making better over time. Our intent was to learn how we could adapt our Big Picture Learning design -- successful at the high school level -- to this population.

We conducted two symposiums--the first in Seattle, WA, the second in Newark, NJ--and assembled a diverse crew--a broad cross-section of individuals from the education, foundation, business, and community sectors. CEOs dialogued with teachers. Principals interviewed leaders of non-profit organizations. Students questioned school district leaders. We invited several young people, most of them dropouts, to tell their stories and describe their encounters with the system. (For a description and commentary on the symposium design, see Sam Seidel's article in GOOD (

Despite the fact that these students are part of a group we call "disconnected youth," we came to understand that each young person is unique in the challenges he or she has faced and in the way he or she has responded to those challenges. The stories, images, and data we examined led to insights into what happens when not one thing but many things go wrong for a young adult, all at once or slowly, but wrong nevertheless.

From their own perspectives, these young people are not disconnected, at least from the things that matter to them. It is true that they are disconnected from schools, but they describe their continually expanding and diversifying connections to other individuals and groups. George Valliant of the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development notes: "It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age." Traditional schools and systems have difficulty understanding or supporting these alternative connections.

So what is the "different then better" that we think will significantly improve the prospects for these young people? We envision centers or hubs for youth without the impediments to providing a highly customized set of connections to an aligned set of resources.

These centers or hubs will provide:
• A personalized learning program wrapped around each young adult's career interests and work, helping him or her to develop and pursue a productive career pathway resulting in a high school diploma, technical degrees, and certificates in a diverse range of career/occupational pathways.
• One-stop access to the support services--food, housing, and health care--essential for keeping the young person focused on productive learning and work.
• A comprehensive data system that records each young person's connections to all aspects of the system: work, housing, and health care.
• Places for youth to obtain just-in-time learning resources, including online learning, tutoring, classes, and certifications linked to work and services.
• Paid work experiences with internships, mentoring, and integrated learning of academic and technical skills leading to job readiness certificates and productive work.
• Post secondary pathways that include community colleges, technical schools, and other non-traditional learning opportunities.

Such programs are difficult to provide but far from impossible. They require the political will to create coherent policy through legislation and regulation, to reallocate and align resources, and to redesign programs. They require as well that we extend our field of vision beyond stemming the tide of high school dropouts to addressing the needs of millions of young people drifting just outside the system.


Elliot Washor, Ed. D., is Co-Founder of Big Picture Learning, a global leader in education innovation with more than 80 successful schools throughout America, the European Union, New Zealand, and Australia.