Should we just let high school dropouts drop out?

A few weeks ago on the Friday Round Table, Peter Bell, former chairman of the Met Council, suggested that if kids wants to drop out of school, we should let them. We could save money and spend more time on the kids who want to be there, Bell said.

We got a lot of outraged mail about his comments so we’re inviting him back on Monday to discuss how we can improve Minnesota’s dropouts rates, especially for black and latino teens.

Peter Bell will be joined by Susan Bowles Therriault and Karen Stout.

What do you think can be done to improve dropout rates?

–Stephanie Curtis, social media host

  • Julie

    I’m not the first to suggest this, but if we approached every at-risk kid like a star college athletic recruit, we could increase graduation rates hugely. If you’re a kid with a great arm or lightening speed, those college recruiters will get you to college. Your high school coach calls to check you’re in bed early the night before the game. Teachers remind you that failing their class could cost you your ride. The college admissions officers babysit your application and will drive you to take your ACT’s. Alumni will help make sure your family makes rent. Once we care as much about closing the achievement gap as we care about beating NDSU, graduation rates will soar.

  • I have often wondered why we cannot give each young person educational credits to be used after the age of 16. These credits could be available at a later time for a young person who for whatever reason cannot be successful in a high school setting. It has been my experience with my own children and their friends that not everyone is able to handle the demands of a high school program. The reasons for their inability to function well are individual and we need to stop trying to force or coerce immature or uncooperative young people to learn when they are not ready. How much more humane and efficient it would be to let them opt out for a time with the understanding that when ready to resume their education they have the opportunity. We can’t waste people.

  • Jared

    I think they should be aloud to drop out, when I was in high school the kids that ended up dropping out were the loud, disruptive, disrespectful students. Senior year was the best year of high school for the reason that these students were not in the class.

  • Mark H.

    I grew up in the UK where you can leave school at age 16 1/2 i.e. halfway through or the end of 11th grade. These were kids who were not going to go to college. They were not called dropouts, and I think that this is not a helpful label. If a person wants to be in a job that does not require college, then why not let someone leave a year early without labelling them a dropout.

  • Stephanie Curtis, The Daily Circuit
  • Tim

    When my fellow students dropped out of high school (and college), in every case, its was because they didnt understand why school is important, so they had no motivation. Finding that understanding and motivation is part of growing up.

    If we could could take the money we spend on forcing thesekids to go to school to make PS education free, i believe it would be much more effective to let these students grow up a little bit and motivate themselves to success.

  • Phyllis

    I worked as a paraprofessional in a St. Paul highschool. My job was to make sure four students went to class and stayed in class. The students did not want to be in school and caused disruptions in the classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria, and on the bus. Many times the principals, social workers and even the school police officer would have to intervene. When their behaviors caused them to be suspended, a homebound teacher would have to be found to continue the students’ education. One thing I discovered working with these students is that they did not have a good, solid, educational foundation. They knew they couldn’t read, write, or do math, so why be in school? I believe if students are given the educational tools they need in pre-kindergaten programs, elementary and middle school, they will have a better chance of completing highschool.

  • Phil Preeshl

    For the potential drop out we should strive to provide useful skill and say to the I” understand why your dropping but why don’t you go to a high school level trade school” instead of insisting that the student waste, from their point of view, time in another history, English, or a math class; My mother grew up in England in the 1940’s. She remember that at around the age of 12 they would take a test. The results of the test would mean that the students would either go to a high school that focus on academics or a school that would focus more on practical “trade skill.” If a model like that was implemented potential would help the students in the trade graduate with practical skills and not putting them into classes that could lead to their dropping.out.

  • Kathy G.

    The federally funded TRiO Programs, which are a group of 7 programs (Educational Talent Search, Upward Bound, Veterans Upward Bound, Math and Science Upward Bound, Educational Opportunity Centers, Student Support Services and McNair Programs, are proven to be effective in keeping students engaged in school, matriculating to college and graduating from college and even going on to graduate school. TRiO works with the most vulnerable students–low income and first generation college students and has proven to be successful since the 1960’s. They were created as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. These proven programs need to be expanded! They have been cut during the belt tightening of the last few years.

  • Bette

    Many, MANY dropouts are students challenged by Learning Disabilities and issues around AD/HD. These talented, smart individuals represent valuable cognitive diversity in our society. It is up to us, the ADULTS, to provide these students with the necessary remediation and support that allows them to meet their full potential. For more info please visit the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

  • Kristina

    I agree it is partly the teacher’s job to motivate a student. But my first teachers, my parents, were my biggest motivators. Parents need the tools and education on how to best intervene, support, and motivate their children’s education. This starts at birth! Minnesota is very unique in this way as we have ECFE. Early Childhood and FAMILY education. The only state in the union with univerally available childhood and parental education. This program keys parents into the education of their children and builds community. It takes a village!

  • denise

    Are we addressing all the life issues that pull students attention away from school? The multi spectrum issues of poverty keep youth from being focused on spending 6 hours a day in school, especially if they have to support themselves and/or their families. Geoffrey Canada’s model is expensive, but is required to address ALL the issues involved, by making sure kids are fed, clothed, sheltered and offering families help in reaching stability. Parents who did not do well can hardly help their students do well in school. it becomes a cycle and spiral is downward

  • Heidi Auel

    As an educator, I have seen many students motivated by non-academic subjects, yet held back by the more rigorous standards we are implementing for high school grads. We now have a graduation requirement for more higher level science classes (physics and chemistry). We have to realize that every student is not college bound and have more pathways for students so they do not get disheartened early on.

  • Margaret

    School-based mental health. So important. The group with the highest dropout rate are minorities with emotional behavioral issues and IEPs.

    Watch Dan Habib’s documentary “Who Cares About Kelsey” to get an idea of the obstacles students have to overcome and positive steps schools can take.

  • Colleen cannon

    The problem is that in the US high school is geared toward college. In Europe, it isn’t. There, 10th-graders have the option to move out of a college-oriented high school track and into one of many well-respected apprenticeship programs that train kids for a job. This solves two problems — it removes those who can’t or don’t want ot go to college AND it bestows skill and pride in non-academic career choices. We need to give kids in the US an option out of 12 years of school that doesn’t

    Abel them as failures.

  • Kris Kiel

    Absolutely do NOT agree with waiting until the student fails their first test. By the time they’re in high school they have an established peer group that is supporting unproductive behavior. In elementary school we can teach students and families resiliency that will carry them through the rest of their lives. Resiliency, established at a young age, becomes an ingrained part of your personality.

    PARENTS and TEACHERS will NEVER AGAIN be as influential in the students lives as in Pre-K and elementary school. Teach them the character traits and resiliency that they need to succeed when they’re young. STRESS is proven to be the most influential factor in the achievement gap.

  • Gretchen

    Does Peter Bell have any qualifications for discussing this subject apart from being a conservative has-been?

  • casidy anderson

    So much effort and money is being put into keeping kids in school who have NO support at home. Maybe these resources should target the parents/families instead. I’m sure the drop-out rate of the current drop-out generations PARENTS was equally as bad, if not worse. The resources need to go towards community/grass-roots organizations who can help support families.

    I like the idea of free community college!

  • Martha Galep

    Peter Bell said “They did good”. He is an expert in education?

  • meriel

    We are expending time, energy and money far too late at the high school level. I am an early childhood educator, and I think that the only solution in the long term is to focus on children and their education as early as possible–build solid educational foundations as early as possible. This means not just knowledge and skills but an appreciation for education and the self-discipline and inner development of the will that it takes to be a self-directed, independent learner. Also: has anybody really asked children why they drop out, or looked at the child’s total life situation? I work with a high-risk population of children and without exception they come from disastrous home situations. The problem there is that, try as we might, we cannot legislate human behavior. I tend to think our schools reflect the larger culture: failing schools reflect the breaking up of a cohesive social compact, and also the adoption of a consumerist, instant-gratification, entertainment culture. Children learn how to be human from the adults and the environment around them. We must present our best selves to children; but again, we cannot legislate that or force adults to be responsible parents or members of society. So we will continue to spin our wheels, throwing money at an intractable problem that begins with US, the adults.

  • Bree

    I taught english in Japan for two years before coming back to the U.S. for graduate school. I taught elementary and junior-high students, and saw that the type of students who did care to attend an ‘academic high school’ (the schools which had a curriculum most similar to high schools in the U.S.) were given the option to attend a ‘technical high school’ which didn’t focus so much an academics but job skills like plumbing, carpentry, landscaping, sewing, along with the math and science classes that would be most useful for those trades. The satisfaction derived from practical work seemed to be a great motivator for those students who greatly disliked traditional academic schools. I certainly wish I had that option in high school.

  • Chuck

    I have to agree with Mr. Bell in part. Many of these kids don’t have a long term vision and they don’t see the consequences that dropping out will have on their lives. We should look at On The Job Training or vocational education for these kids. If these kids get some real world experience and training, they may come to value education.

  • Elizabeth

    Was on hold 30 min…

    Two comments from a educator and writer:

    1) My father taught 5th and 6th grades for over 30 years to primarily hispanic and African American students: He focused on ensuring his students could read at grade level and do basic math (while at the same time incorporating music, art, and interesting science and history). Without any scientific data, the feedback he got over the years is that most of the “at-risk” kids went on to either graduate in time from HS or go onto community college and a good start in life.

    2) And for years California provided almost free community college, which made it possible for me to get a college education. A huge portion of my classmates were drop-outs that were now able to get a chance to succeed in life.

  • Michael Shannon

    I second the advocation of apprenticeship. Before we had public schooling in America, apprenticeship was a significant part of gaining work skillls.

    For a lot of kids who are falling behind in an academic milieu, learning a hands-on trade might well be a very effective confidence-builder.

  • Danielle

    I had a child drop out at 16.

    He was very athletic and the threat of the schools that he “wouldn’t be able to play sports” if he didn’t do his homework fell on deaf ears and only encouraged him to give up the idea of playing sports. He always took the consequence.

    If schools could give the child living skills starting in Jr. High, I think they would think twice about dropping out. Living skills = balancing a checkbook, taking the minimum wage that they would be getting at 16 and show them the costs to live. How to get along with others, play together, work together. This might sound like something children should learn at home, but let’s face it there are many parents who don’t know it to teach it.

    Also, for every child that “makes fun” of another child in high school sets that child up for failure. Parents’ whom criticizes other parents in front of their children adds to the separation. Children need to know their part in it.

    Teachers whom criticize families or students in teacher’s lounges add to the fire. Students who are brought up in lower income homes, or divorced families are easy targets. If the teachers/school staff would not “attack” the parent(s) for the child’s misbehavior, and work together to solve the problems, the child would have a better chance of success. Threats from the principal, “I will fail you if you don’t…..(whatever) should be followed through. My son completely lost respect for the school after being threatened that he will not pass the grade if he didn’t follow through, and then the principal passed him anyway when he didn’t give them one iota of what they wanted.

    I agree with Karen about meeting the student where they are at (NOT in a condemning manner). I felt that way when Peter was talking, and that is how the education system was at the time my son dropped out.I think Check and Connect would have helped my child.

    I do agree with Peter however, that if the child is defiant and refuses to work with the school, have them ready at McDonalds or wherever to be there to catch them when they fall. That would be AWESOME!

    Also, I think we shouldn’t forget to possibly have testing done to determine if there might be either a mental illness or low IQ that is contributing to the problem.

  • Beth

    I wonder how career counseling fits into the conversation? I realize that many schools might not have the resources for in-depth career counseling in high school, but how would more career counseling affect students’ motivation? If students were more informed about their career prospects without (and more important _with_) a high school diploma, would they be more motivated to graduate? As part of this, I would also suggest that in my experience, community college needs to be stressed as a viable option in high schools. In my high school, we almost never heard of community college options, which I think would have given students who didn’t see a traditional college as an option something to work towards.

  • Ray

    I think the biggest thing we could do is to mandate smaller class sizes to allow better teacher engagement with more students. Creating separate programs is treating a symptom not the underlying problem. When teachers have more time to spend with their students their students are far better off.

  • Makeda Norris

    Two of the main problems with HS dropout rates with poor and ethnic groups are the overall systems and policies that don’t support families in ways that prevent dropout.

  • Margie Deutsch

    What if our high schools adopted the German system? Students at 16 who want to continue academic school continue on. Those who want to go to trade schools do that. Both are honorable choices and often best fit the student.

  • Corinne Smith

    Regarding motivation: In Northfield we have a program that works with Latino students and other ‘at risk’ students to generate the motivation that Bell speaks about students needing. Relationships are build with committed adults; tutoring is provided. As they begin to experience academic success they are connected with post-secondary programs and supported in those efforts. By experiencing success in these classes, the personal motivation grows and they acquire in high school some college credits that assist them as they transition into college programs. The high school program helps ensure that they connect with needed college supports. HS graduation among these students has been extremely high.

  • Robert mansfield

    I am a high school dropout who served in the military i did get my ged , I really appreciate peter bell’s comments , i would like to make contact with Mr. Bell i can be reached at

  • David

    There’s no dropping out. Education continues on forever. Khan Academy and simular resources should highly encouraged and utilized.

  • Linda

    I am a first grade teacher in a low income area in greater Minnesota. I have seen children loose hope at being successful at a very young age. When the parents come in for a conference to discuss their child’s progress, it soon becomes very apparent if the child’s issues are tied to the family itself. If the family is unable to provide a secure, nurturing environment it becomes more difficult for their children to keep up with the other students.

    So many very young, unmarried women are raising children without much financial and emotional support. Whenever I get an opportunity to empower these women to take charge of their own lives so they can help their children succeed, it brings amazing results. Helping with parenting skills, medical coverage issues, mental illness issues – all help the student achieve!

    Sad to say, that in 1st grade I can already identify students that I fear will not make it through high school because of family issues.

    Of course I teach resiliency and academic skills to all students, but it takes the whole community to address the bigger issues that drag success down.

    Let’s empower people through support of tutoring to parents in whatever skills they need to help their children. People don’t often move ahead when they feel overwhelmed or ignored.

    So much to talk about, so many things that play a part in society’s success that trickle down to its youth. It’s great to begin the conversation.

  • suzanna munns

    I am a recently retired elementary/reading teacher. I agree with Mr. Bell’s understanding of motivation once the student gets to the point of the decision to drop out – they are difficult to bring back from the brink. I like his idea of “inviting them back”. When the basis of the decision to drop out is academic poor performance, I do believe that one-to-one interventions at the times (everytime) a student becomes confused with subject matter need to be done. In my experience these interventions have never been done in a way that will help spur the student to remain motivated. The student’s confusions with subject matter get larger and more pervasive over the elementary years so that the student drowns in confusion. I spent my career in one of the largest school districts in the state with a large student body of color who came largely out of poverty. That school system never did what I described above. It never did these things: 1. never instructed directly from good curriculum, 2. never progress monitored to show exactly where and when confusions appeared, 3. never provided one-to-one to clear up confusions. Instead, administrators have blamed the very teachers who have brought these problems with the systems (or lack of systems) to light, and who blame the very teachers who have brought individual students problems to light. The people who were speaking about the problem, and who are in positions to do something to help teachers keep their little students motivated through the students’ understanding of all of their lessons, like Mr. Bell, Ms. Stout, and the woman from the Early Intervention agency, need to bypass the administrators in these school districts to speak to teachers like me who have a vision of success for these children, and who keep getting beat down by the administrators.

  • Ken Hinnenkamp

    I think motivation is key. Another problem with drop outs is discipline. If motivation and discipline are lacking at home, school work will suffer.

    I heard talk of getting to students early to instill motivation. I agree with this. But, if we are unsuccessful early, we shouldn’t give up.

    Fear is also a motivator that no one talked about. Here is a radical concept for you. Add fear as motivator to the equation. Make it mandatory for drop outs and failing students to go to military schools. Send them to boarding schools and take away the distractions of their environment, peers, etc. Keep them busy day and night. Make gangs an unavailable avenue for them. The discipline they will get may be more “caring” than drop outs get at home.

    Make the parents cough up some of the cost of military school. Perhaps they will participate in student motivation if they fear having to pay for something they could otherwise get for free.

  • Brian Lozenski

    A major flaw in Mr. Bell’s argument is the assumption that what we ask children to do in school is worthy of their motivation. The students I have worked with over the last decade as a teacher, (many low income students of color) who Mr. Bell labels “dysfunctional” because they reject irrelevant education, become disengaged because they do not see any connection between what they are learning and their actual lives. And they are right! We have turned school into a processing plant, and any child that deviates or does not operate in the accepted ways are seen as deficient.

    Mr. Bell also completely ignores the history of sacrifice that impoverished communities of color have made to have access to education that was denied for generations. We continue to do a disservice to these communities when we label them dysfunctional, and blame them for a failed system.

  • I’m a producer with a project called Ed Zed Omega, a “thought experiment” that asks the exact question that asked on today’s Daily Circuit: “Why do drop-outs drop out, and should we let them?” The primary difference with our project is that teens are involved in the conversation, not just adults, a detail which we’ve found to be incredibly illuminating to this conversation.

    For one thing, the discussion at has illustrated that everyone has a drop-out story. Not just residents of the inner city, not just the poor or delinquent. Therefore, there really is no such thing as a drop-out who’s an “exception to the rule,” as nearly all of the callers seemed to be, today. Coincidence? There’s a reason that your phone lines were full throughout the discussion, that the blog is still buzzing, hours after the fact. We’ve found through our project that all kinds of people are “at risk” for dropping out of school, for all kinds of reasons. And what’s more, not a single person, out of the hundreds who have contributed to our site, has said, “The educational system is fine.” People may tell our surrogate drop-outs to get back in school, they may say that school is necessary for success, but the closest they come to saying, “School is good for you,” is, “You need to suck it up.” Our drop-outs ask, “Why should I go back to a system that’s not working for me?” And no one has an answer for them yet.

    I would like to invite your listeners to visit and share their thoughts on school with the community of teens there: You can leave a post, or simply leave a message on our hotline, 612-756-ZEDS (9337)––voicemails are shared on the site. The more people share their stories, the better informed educational leaders will be about their approach to reexamining the system. When it comes to drop-outs, it seems that listening goes a long way.

  • Chris Sullivan

    I have taught my whole career in top notch private schools first as a history teacher and now as an Academic Coach. My job now is to support students with an LD through a demanding academic program. It is not rocket science. I have 2-3 students per hour in a guided tutorial setting. I meet with them every day.I keep track of their grades, I help them learn new skills (time management, study skills, writing, and reading skills) to better navigate a system that is not always designed for them, I encourage them when necessary, I help them talk with their teachers about what they need, and I provide a supportive environment so they can succeed. I don’t know why this model could not be used in the public school system. The goal would be to teach the students the skills they need to become learners and ultimately to become independent of someone like me. This could be used in conjunction with apprenticeship programs and other honorable outs suggested in the comments above to try to tailor our schools to what kids really need. We need to do this along with figuring out how to attract the very best to the teaching profession like they are able to do in Finland. We can do this!

  • The debate between the two viewpoints was frustrating to listen to. Both are correct. As a high school dropout now making a 6 figure income, I know that proper intervention could have kept me in school, but that starting in 8th grade I started an academic and social decline that made me feel school was empty and pointless. School needs to be shown as relevant and interesting, while social and emotional support needs to be defined and offered.

    There should be a dropout preparation program that is required for all potential dropouts. Let them know they could wind up like me, after 30+ years of unskilled labor and factory jobs. Or they might not rise about that or even sink lower into incarceration.

    Parents, teachers, counselors, etc. are wasting their time talking to kids about why they should stay in school. Kids know they are different and if the person giving the advice didn’t quit school, then how could they really know what they are talking about?

  • Mary Beth Blegen

    Kerri…a suggestion for future stories involving schools. Find a person or two who are doing the work in the schools. it is so easy to talk about what we think should happen in urban schools. But if we aren’t familiar with what is going on, we are in error. No one would deny that we have so far to go. in Urban high schools, but there are good things happening. Peter was quite dismissive of urban high schools. Consider involving a principal, counselor or teacher who works in the schools every day. Their voice is so often missing from talk about education.

  • Marybeth Luing

    I’m sorry I missed the call-in portion of this program, but am happy to be able to access the comments and the live audio recording.

    I wonder if anyone caught the first caller’s information identifying she was homeless at the time of her drop-out decision. Many students don’t go ‘home’ to families who find education important because they aren’t part of any family. The stresses of living at that level of poverty, whether as parents or as homeless students, dictates what has to be most important, such as where to put belongings, and how to be safe without housing. The decision to make education a lower priority, in this scenario, must be taken in context!

    Also, a program that finds the intersection of student motivation, at-risk factors and the capacity to turn around is the High School for Recording Arts. They re-engage drop-out students with their goal to get a diploma, using project-based learning and graduate them at levels much higher than the mainstream public school programs–up to 70% success for young black male drop-outs. Check out what they are doing that makes education work for at-risk students.

  • Bill Punyko

    The first caller mentioned that no one from the school intervened when she decided to drop out. They got a call she wasn’t attending but that was all. She also said nobody really knew if she had, and her parents really didn’t care.


    did any one else hear that comment???

    There’s your problem right there.

    Stanford did some recent research on where the problems are. It concluded it was parents that had the biggest impact on success/failure and learning. My response was … “duh”

  • Kathy Nyberg

    Absolutely let the students drop out! Use the money from those programs to pay teachers more. Eventually the student will realize the value of education and will come back to school. This will be after they work minimum wage jobs and have a hard time paying their rent. I work at a community college and many of these high school dropouts appear at our doors eventually when they’re ready to get their lives together.

  • Lynn

    Bill has it right that parents who don’t care are a huge part of the problem. I work with kids who have learning disabilities and my unscientific poll over 15 years is that kids do better in school, even with disabilities, when their parents actually parent them. That means feeding them, making them go to bed at night, do their homework, get up and go to school, dress and speak appropriately. When a parent says to the truancy person “Is it my job to make my kid go to school?” I would say YES IT IS!

    I make it a point to encourage parents and commend them when they do show nurturing and care for their children. It’s a hard job, I know- I have children and grandchildren- but kids are worth the effort

  • lfrickey

    The Scale of Student Engagement/Disengagement (SOS ED), developed to identify student engagement levels that puts students at risk of not graduating high school, is quick, inexpensive, and easy to administer. It uses a paper-pen, bubble-sheet format, and solicits student feedback on research-identified indicators that place student at risk in school. The SOS ED can be administered to 6th through 12th graders. The SOS ED is created on the premise that all students can engage to achieve student success and if they do not, we, as educators, need to know the cause of the disengagement.

    To see how the SOS ED works, please watch this video:

    and visit

    or email me


    Dr. Lynn Frickey

  • Larry Josephs

    “A high school diploma is an absolute minimum, or minimum wage will be your absolute maximum.”— Copyright © 1998 Lawrence L. Josephs, U.S. Army First Sergeant (Ret.) 1966-1995

    High School Dropouts-a Growing epidemic:

    The high school dropout rate is at epidemic proportions. According to the Ad Council, 7000 students drop out of school every day. That’s 1 out of every 3 high school students. That’s more than 2.5 million of our young people that will not finish school
    this year. That equals one dropout every 26 seconds.

  • Larry Josephs

    As a former “Student-at-Risk” 1966, Sibley Senior High, West St. Paul, MN I know that many of these students just need some on-going motivational classes that demonstrate they have the power to graduate. It’s all about “never giving in” to the temptation to drop out. I enjoy working with these classes and proving to them, that if I can make it, after being voted “least likely to succeed’ and voted “biggest trouble maker” in the same 1966 class yearbook…anyone can make it. It was caring teachers with foresight that “knocked some sense into me” and made me hang in there so I could at least join the U.S. Army. (U.S. Army First Sergeant, Ret. 1966-1995) The rest is history. I can never thank them enough! – Larry Josephs, President, Minnesota Sales Training, Inc. If I can be of assistance to any school, they just need to email me or call me at 612-868-1171