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Omdahl: Upper-class values won’t solve dropout problem

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With a high school graduation rate of close to 90 percent, North Dakota does not appear to have much of a dropout problem. However, Dakota Draper, President of the North Dakota Education Association, sees it as an issue that cannot be dismissed.

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At annual rate of 750 dropouts, in 10 years society must deal with 7,500 undereducated citizens, and in 20 years it becomes 15,000. It’s cumulative.

The dropouts are not only punishing themselves by earning less in their working years, but they are also punishing the whole of society because dropouts cost the taxpayers huge sums of money in unemployment compensation, drug treatment, food stamps, law enforcement, prisons and just about every other social service.

Draper estimates that dropouts cost North Dakota about $2 million a year in public health care assistance alone.

States and local school districts have tried all sorts of programs to promote school attendance. One effort in Camden, N.J., Jersey involved paying chronic truants to attend school.

The dropouts were identified and promised $400 for regular attendance. Of the 66 that initially enrolled, 55 finished. Even though we look at it as waste, it may well be cheaper than paying for all of the social services that will be required down the road.

Instead of a carrot, Tennessee is cutting social service benefits for families with dropouts. This has been met with derision in some quarters and compared to Scrooge in the Charles Dickens novel.

In proposing dropout solutions, we need to recognize the difference in values between those who make the policy and those we expect to comply with it. They are miles apart and upper-class solutions are not effective at influencing lower-class behavior.

When African-Americans were rioting in the ’60s and ’70s, Harvard Professor Ed Banfield wrote a book challenging the idea that race was the villain. He claimed that it wasn’t race. It was class. In his analysis, he did not define class by family income, residence, education or race. Instead, he described class levels by orientation toward the future.

Upper-class folks are future-oriented and sacrifice today’s pleasures for long-term gains. On the other hand, lower-class people have a present-oriented focus and live for today rather than the future.

Education policymakers — legislators, governors, educators — all come from the upper classes and tend to be upper class in their thinking. Consequently, they come up with solutions that fail to motivate lower class students.

One of the major reasons given by dropouts for their truancy is that school is boring. It is boring because their present-oriented mind does not see immediate benefits. Talk about future earnings has limited impact on lower-class thinking when a dead-end job will pay $80 a week right now.

Present-oriented thinking frustrates educational advancement and that, in turn, results in increased poverty. So the lower class is not only less educated but also poor.

Any program that will be effective with dropouts must take into account this present-oriented mentality.

Rewards for attending school must be obvious and fairly immediate.

Since present-orientedness often originates in family culture, parents may also need incentives to participate in fighting truancy. This means that greater investments must be made and creative programs designed for dropouts and parents alike.

The biggest obstacle to realistic programming is convincing us that it is wise to spend money today to avoid bigger costs in a distant tomorrow. In that regard, we, too, are present-oriented. So we will keep proposing cheap but ineffective upper class solutions.

Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email him at ndmatters@q.com.

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Lloyd Omdahl
Omdahl is former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher.
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