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Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009

Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery
John H. Tyler Magnus Lofstrom


By most measures, the nation's high schools did a remarkable job of educating the populace throughout the twentieth century. At least in part because of the secondary education they received in American public high schools, hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens have been able and ready to participate in a dynamic democracy and to contribute to and benefit from an ever-changing economy. Many have used public high schools to help them transition from first-generation immigrant to American citizen. To be sure, the opportunities and the rewards have been uneven, varying by gender, race, and geographic region, but if the twentieth century was, as Claudia Goldin has argued, "the human capital century," with America as leader, then the American public high school system deserves due credit.1

Even so, in the final decades of the twentieth century, public education, including public secondary education, increasingly became the focus of criticism and controversy because of failures perceived or real.2 And criticism directed at the nation's schools has not abated in this new century. A recent focus of widespread concern has been the number of students, particularly black and Hispanic students, who never graduate from high school. One high-profile national dropout study, for example, begins ominously, "There is a high school dropout epidemic in America."3 And the popular press gave widespread and front-page coverage to a Johns Hopkins University study that coined the term "dropout factory" to describe certain high schools and estimated that the nation has 1,700 such schools.

Whether termed a "problem," a "crisis," or an "epidemic," the large numbers of students who do not graduate from high school generate clear and widespread concern. To bring some additional light and clarity to the topic, we examine different facets of the dropout issue. We begin with two questions. Just how bad is the dropout "problem"? And who, exactly, is dropping out? We then turn to the costs associated with leaving school early. We conclude by examining the state of knowledge regarding dropout-prevention and "second-chance" programs.