Educating School Boards

America’s school boards of education operate their high schools in ignorance. This sounds strange, but it is true. They evaluate high schools, principals, and curriculum without knowing what happens to district students when they leave high school. School board decisions have very serious consequences on the lives of their students. These important boards need to know what happens to students after they leave high school in order to improve the impact of education on the lives of students. One can reasonably posit that the primary reason for the existence of education is to prepare youth for their lives after high school.

The national facts of what happens to high school students are:

  • thirty percent drop out of high school (this was prior to many districts constructing alternative graduation programs. I argue that graduation from these alternative programs is something less than actual graduation from a comprehensive high school.)

  • forty percent drop out of urban high schools (this is still what it actually is when the alternative programs are discounted.)

  • thirty percent graduate from a university

  • seventy percent do not graduate from a university.

For high school dropouts, and I argue that the same trajectory awaits these new alternative graduates, life is pretty dismal:

  • seventy percent of the two and a half million in prison and additional four and a half million on probation and parole in America are high school dropouts

  • the recidivism rate for ex-convicts is seventy percent.

Those are the national facts. Some school districts will quibble over dropout proportions by counting GED, online courses, special alternative charter schools, and high school diploma programs as graduation and leaving out special education students and students who are not citizens. These are simply methods of hiding reality. The GED is an equivalency based on a test and special education students deserve to be counted. The significant point is that the educational system is intended to do more than just qualify students for a piece of paper. We need our educational system to actually prepare students to survive when they leave high school.

In order to evaluate how well high school prepares the supermajority non-college bound group for life, the board requires information on what happens to their graduates and dropouts after they leave high school. Without this information, the board is flying blind. As a lay board, their education is insufficient to ask what they don’t know. The solution is to use quality longitudinal research to guide their decisions. The reality, however, is that that school boards are ignorant about longitudinal research and they need educating.

Longitudinal research is a process of following up on students after they leave high school over a period of at least five years. We know from national studies that the majority of high school graduates go on to postsecondary education. However, within a few years the dropout rate of community colleges is severe and university attrition is also substantial. This process goes on until thirty percent actually graduates from college. The rate of college graduation, however, varies widely by high school and school district. The success of graduates finding employment also varies. This is why school boards must learn the value of longitudinal research and to initiate their own studies. School boards can create a baseline of quality information and begin to use the information to improve their high schools.

Because we know there is a very high attrition rate in community colleges, the major focus of the board should be the proportion of graduates finding employment. Perhaps the most significant longitudinal question is how well the high school curriculum prepares students for employment. In urban school districts, fewer than the national average of thirty percent will ultimately graduate from college meaning more than seventy percent will ultimately be looking for employment. So how do school boards begin to learn how well the schools are preparing our youth for employment? They need to collect the following data and compare the results from year to year:

  • What proportion of high school students complete four-year sequences of career technical education programs?

  • What proportion of high school students are certified as employable by career technical education program advisory boards?

  • What proportion of graduates and leavers are employed after graduation?

  • What proportion of graduates and leavers are employed related to their career technical education program after graduation?

This information should drive the high school curriculum.

Out of ignorance, many school boards operate what is essentially a college prep curriculum ultimately for far fewer than thirty percent of their high school students. This elitist approach harms the supermajority of students. It pushes some kids out of school, turns many others off to education, and doesn’t prepare many for life after high school. So what should the school boards do?

  • Immediately begin a longitudinal study

  • Start collecting information about high school student success in proportions of students completing sequences of career technical education programs and those certified as employable

  • Expand career academies that graduate high proportions of students, all of whom have employable skills

  • Institute an annual meeting with their city council, police chief, Chamber of Commerce, and mayor to publicly review: dropout rate, graduation rate, number completing sequences, number deemed employable, and the results of the longitudinal study

  • Ask the City for help in creating new Police and Fire Career Academies

  • Ask the Chamber for help with other career academies

  • When students flunk Algebra, offer alternative courses like Consumer Math

  • When students flunk Chemistry or Biology, offer alternative courses like Physical Science or Life Science

  • Require all students to complete a four-year sequence of career technical education

  • In order to provide time in student’s schedules, move athletics after the regular high school day.

School boards must learn who its clients are and adjust their high school education to meet their needs. In most high schools, the supermajority of students is not ever going to graduate from college. They are youth who desperately need help preparing for employment in order to survive.

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on

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Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Eucation or Incarceration? on
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