Other countries have pulled ahead, and the U.S. falls behind
More than at any other time, getting a good job requires a strong education, especially in a global market. But in international rankings of high school graduation, the U.S. is near the bottom of the list of developed countries. It's a statistic that has not gone unnoticed by educators and policymakers at the highest levels, and many of them are now looking to other countries to see where American schools can improve.
In 2009, President Obama spoke to students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, carrying a strong message: dropping out is not patriotic.
"If you quit on school, you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country," he said.
The president has said other countries were "out-educating us." It seems they're also out-graduating us.
The United States used to be number one for high school graduation. But times have changed. In 2009, the U.S. ranked 21st out of 26 OECD countries when it came to high school graduation rate, according to Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
"Basically the completion rate is pretty low, by international standards, in the United States," Schleicher says. Portugal and Slovenia were tied for first in the rankings, Japan and Finland hold the number two spot, and the Czech Republic ranks 17th.
Internationally, a greater focus on academics
Romana Dvoracek and her family moved from the Czech capital of Prague to D.C. two years ago.
"I ask them what happens in school and what did they learn. It's usually my first and last question every day," Dvoracek says, adding, with a laugh, "They say nothing happened."
Her children may be similar to American teenagers, more interested in messaging friends online than chatting with parents. But their educational experiences are very different from those of their American peers. Tomas, 19, is a senior at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School in Maryland. He found classes in his home country much more challenging.
"When I came here I had biology, physics, chemistry, all the credits for all three classes," Tomas says. "There, it was common. Here, if you take all three you're like a hero or something!"
He loves the extracurricular activities that his American school offers, though.
"In my school, there's a club for anything and if there isn't one, you just make one," he says. "Chess, model UN, crew. In Czech Republic, there's nothing like that."
American schools: too much of a social focus?
But the reasons Tomas loves the U.S. schooling system could be why the U.S. has lost its competitive edge, says researcher Tom Loveless with the Brookings Institution. Loveless says American schools have diluted their academic mission, by emphasizing the social experience: sports, proms and clubs.
Loveless doesn't dispute that those activities teach qualities such as creativity and teamwork. "But it doesn't boost your knowledge of mathematics or literature so there's a price to pay," he says. "When you do the statistical analysis of what countries are growing rapidly now, they tend to be the countries that have an education system that's focused on academic skills."
With a graduation rate that has hovered around 76 percent for the past few years, it isn't that the U.S. graduation rate has dropped, according to Schleicher. Rather, other developed countries have worked aggressively to improve.
"If you were running not a school but, say, a supermarket, and you see every day from 100 customers 30 leave your shop without buying anything year after year, day after day, you start to change your inventory," he says
Vocational programs offer surprising results
That's exactly what other countries have done. Many countries offer multiple paths to a high school diploma, including career and technical programs, unlike in the U.S, points out Russell Rumberger, a researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
"We have a very monolithic conception of high school, which is a comprehensive high school with a singular diploma that everyone gets," Rumberger says.
The U.S. has placed less emphasis on vocational education because in years past, educators have been criticized for "tracking" children or steering them to certain careers -- especially low income, immigrant and minority students. But many experts say the U.S. should rethink its approach and model itself after countries that offer rigorous, challenging coursework in their vocational schools.
For example, if you want to work in a bank in Switzerland, you can either go to a university or combine your high school courses with professional experience, Schleicher explains.
"Through the vocational route in Switzerland you can become CEO in a very high company," he says. "Those programs are highly demanding, very successful. They're not a second choice."
Countries offering more vocational options have higher graduation rates and score higher on international tests.
Desire for education widespread in developing world
For academic comparisons, the U.S. looks to other developed countries to see where it stacks up. When it comes to economic growth, leaders here often mention developing countries such as China, Brazil and India.
In Bangalore, 2,000 students line up for morning assembly and sing the Indian National Anthem at St. Mary's Orphanage School. It's somewhat of a misnomer because most of the children here aren't really orphans. Their parents are just so poor, they can't afford to keep their children at home, so St. Mary's functions like a boarding school.
One small, softspoken boy, Puneet Sagar. feels lucky to be able to go high school.
I have one chance," he says. Puneet's father is a tailor and supports a family of four on approximately $200 dollars per month. Puneet is 14, and he studies for more than three hours every night because he doesn't want to do what his father does, he says.
"If I become a tailor, I have to struggle all my life. They'll be sorrow in my life," he says. "I have to look after my parents.
In India, nine out of every 10 children attend primary school. But only 20 percent of those that get into primary school actually graduate from secondary school, according Kevin Watkins, a researcher with the Brookings Institution.
Poverty is the biggest reason students drop out of school in developing countries, Watkins adds.
"In India, and to a large degree in in China and Brazil, these are systems in which parents pay for their children to go to school," he says. "They pay school fees. The cost of textbooks is completely privatized."
Instilling a sense of urgency when it comes to education
In St Mary's Orphanage School, Kailasa Nicholas teaches high school biology. Her students are at the age where they're all "hormones and energy," she says. That's why she needs to make sure they graduate....
"When they are educated they get dignity in life," she says. That dignity all starts with a high school diploma.
"This is minimum qualification ... now very minimum because nowadays all the children have graduate degrees," she says. "What will our children be if they don't even pass? Then it becomes a burden for the whole nation and society no?"
This belief in the transformative power of education is widespread in developing countries and is pushing graduation rates "unambiguously upward," says Watkins. He calls it a parent's "primordial drive" to get their students in school.
"This real conviction that that the way out of poverty for our family is to get our children into and through the system," Watkins explains.
Even U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan agrees that's something the U.S. needs to copy.
"I think in other countries, there's a greater understanding that education is the path to a middle class life," he says. "And somehow we have to get back that sense of urgency, that commitment that other countries have."
U.S. plagued by education inequality
The top students in the United States can compete with anyone in the world. The problem is the inequality within the school system, which Watkins calls "shocking."
"In the American education system, the fact that the best 10 percent outperform Singapore and the worst 10 percent of schools with high concentrations of poverty are down there with countries like the average level for Indonesia," Watkins says. "That's an extraordinary spread of inequality in a very rich country."
In that sense, the U.S. is actually a lot like India, he adds.
"We know from the data in the United States that today's education inequalities and dropout rates will be tomorrow's social inequalities," Watkins says. "That's true for India; it's true for the United States; and unless we can close education divisions, the social divisions are automatically going to widen over time."
And that's one reason, as President Obama says, the U.S. cannot afford to accept or ignore America's dropouts.
This story was produced with help from Ginger Moored and assistance of Natalie Yuravlivker. It is part of WAMU 88.5's American Graduate series. "American Graduate - Let's Make It Happen" is a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.