Mississippi has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the country. When about 42% of students fail to graduate from high school, there are long-term negative consequences both for the student’s earning capacity and the state economy. Over a lifetime, a high school graduate on average will earn $260,000 more than a dropout. And a college graduate will on average earn $1 million more than the high school dropout.
Why do so many youth fail to graduate from high school? A little known fact is the vast majority of those dropouts are not struggling academically.
“About 80% of kids dropping out are passing, and 5% have the highest ACT and SAT scores in the country,” said Dr. Hank M. Bounds, State Superintendent of Education. “Research clearly tells us that one of the primary reasons students drop out of school is they don’t see the relevancy of what they are doing in school today and what their life and job opportunities will look like tomorrow.”
Bounds wants to change that, and has proposed a wide reaching program to revamp education from K-12 in Mississippi to make it more relevant to future careers. The plan also creates a “safety net” to help keep kids in school with counseling, mentorship and more parental involvement.
“Some people say, ‘Just teach kids to read and they won’t drop out’,” Bounds said. “But the other issue is as a high school principal for about 10 years, I often saw kids enter the ninth grade, fail a few courses, and maybe not get the home support they needed to get over that hump. They just would give up. Our current curriculum basically is preparing everyone to go on a university track. That is a great goal, and we need to continue that goal. But we also need to give them additional opportunities other than going on to college.”
Response from the business community to the proposal has been very positive.
“One, it is trying to address in a very serious way the bad dropout problem we have by giving young men and women more opportunity to think about potential careers, giving them more reason to stay in school than in the past,” said Jay Moon, president and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association. “With a 42% to 43% dropout rate, that is a major issue we have here in the state. Secondly, I think the central concept of considering everyone in high school to be in workforce development is a good idea because I don’t think there is enough emphasis on the secondary school level that you are supposed to be preparing yourself to go on to further training or go out into the work world.”
Moon also favors the increasing emphasis on computer skills including requiring students to take online courses. He says that is extremely important to the concept of lifelong learning.
“The fact is more and more technology is being utilized in all aspects of the work world, not just in manufacturing,” Moon said. “Talking about dropout issues, businesses are spending millions every year to try to bring job applicants up to some level of performance both from a math and reading comprehension standpoint. Dropouts are a huge drain on our economy, and big cost factor to the business world. Just that part alone is extremely important. The other aspect in terms of adding some career track opportunities at secondary level can only help young men and women get a sense of what job opportunities are out there.”
Discussion of the proposals to revamp public school education in Mississippi will be a centerpiece of Mississippi Economic Council’s planned fall tour to more than 20 cities in the state.
“We will help spread the word on this concept and get input,” said Blake Wilson, president of the MEC. “We are very excited about the concepts. What Hank Bounds has done is taken some of the best ideas in this regard and said, ‘We are going to make a commitment on moving forward.’ This proposal is still a work in progress. It is a plan, and any plan is only as good as its implementation.”
The program also involves collapsing the current 50 or so skills programs into about 20.
“We are going to need a great deal of input and help from the business community to build a curriculum that will actually meet the needs of employers,” Bounds said. “We currently have about 50 vocational programs. We would collapse those programs into about 20. We did research on what the job market will look like ten, 15 years down the road, and collapsed those into seven pathways. We worked backwards into the employment opportunities. Then we looked at what we need to be doing with our vocational courses in order to make them seamlessly transition into the workforce. We are also doing this to make sure we are transitioning appropriately into the community college system. We are still working. We have a good bit of work left to do.”
The plan calls for all ninth grade students to take an online course. Bounds said the schools hope to team with business and industry to build many online courses teaching the job skills employers would like to see their employees possess.
“Then we want to turn around and say to industry, ‘If you want to use this to retrain your personnel, we want to partner with you on that’,” Bounds said. “If you look at Mississippi, we are obviously a rural state with lots of small schools that don’t have the resources to offer all children the same opportunities. Students at Bassfield High School with a graduating class of 40 to 50 do not have the same opportunities of students of Tupelo High School with 400 graduates. It is hard to offer upper level math and science at small schools because there are not enough students to warrant additional teachers.
Online courses will give smaller school students the same opportunities as larger school students. It will level the playing field.”
Online instruction can provide solutions to a number of challenges facing Mississippi schools, including teacher shortages, lack of curriculum options, particularly in rural areas, and a lack of options for acceleration. In addition to providing additional educational choices for students, online courses can often be used to resolve class scheduling conflicts.
The online classes will be an expansion of the Mississippi Virtual School Program which currently offers students 31 courses, including core curriculum and advanced placement courses.
“Because technology helps us to manage, store and retrieve information that is essential to our jobs and our lives, children must acquire these skills in school today to be prepared for an even more tech-savvy world in the future,” Bounds said. “In addition to facilitating the teaching and learning process, technology also enables schools to efficiently and effectively manage student and staff information. In addition, it is an important professional development tool for teachers and administrators.”
The Department of Education will make a request from the Mississippi Legislature in the 2007 session for appropriation for the program. If successful, the program will be implemented the following year.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.