It's lunchtime at Shelbyville High School, 30 miles southeast of Indianapolis, Ind., and more than 100 teenagers are buzzing over trays in the cafeteria. Like high schoolers everywhere, they have arranged themselves by type: jocks, preps, cheerleaders, dorks, punks and gamers, all with tables of their own. But when they are finished chugging the milk and throwing Tater Tots at one another, they will drift out to their classes and slouch together through lessons on Edgar Allan Poe and Pythagoras. It's the promise of American public education: no matter who you are or where you come from, you will be tugged gently along the path of learning, toward graduation and an open but hopeful future.
Shawn Sturgill, 18, had a clique of his own at Shelbyville High, a dozen or so friends who sat at the same long bench in the hallway outside the cafeteria. They were, Shawn says, an average crowd. Not too rich, not too poor; not bookish, but not slow. They rarely got into trouble. Mainly they sat around and talked about Camaros and the Indianapolis Colts.
These days the bench is mostly empty. Of his dozen friends, Shawn says just one or two are still at Shelbyville High. If some cliques are defined by a common sport or a shared obsession with Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, Shawn's friends ended up being defined by their mutual destiny: nearly all of them became high school dropouts.
Shawn's friends are not alone in their exodus. Of the 315 Shelbyville students who showed up for the first day of high school four years ago, only 215 are expected to graduate. The 100 others have simply melted away, dropping out in a slow, steady bleed that has left the town wondering how it could have let down so many of its kids.
In today's data-happy era of accountability, testing and No Child Left Behind, here is the most astonishing statistic in the whole field of education: an increasing number of researchers are saying that nearly 1 out of 3 public high school students won't graduate, not just in Shelbyville but around the nation. For Latinos and African Americans, the rate approaches an alarming 50%. Virtually no community, small or large, rural or urban, has escaped the problem.
There is a small but hardy band of researchers who insist the dropout rates don't quite approach those levels. They point to their pet surveys that suggest a rate of only 15% to 20%. The dispute is difficult to referee, particularly in the wake of decades of lax accounting by states and schools. But the majority of analysts and lawmakers have come to this consensus: the numbers have remained unchecked at approximately 30% through two decades of intense educational reform, and the magnitude of the problem has been consistently, and often willfully, ignored.
That's starting to change. During his most recent State of the Union address, President George W. Bush promised more resources to help children stay in school, and Democrats promptly attacked him for lacking a specific plan. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has trained its moneyed eye on the problem, funding "The Silent Epidemic," a study issued in March that has gained widespread attention both in Washington and in statehouses around the country.