Life in high school has always been a popular Hollywood theme, ranging from the shenanigans in The Breakfast Club to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Heathers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Carrie. In Hollywood, schools are populated by a motley crew of misfits, nerds, jocks and goths, but somehow they all figure things out and earn their diplomas. Problem is, that’s not really how high school works in the United States.
Take the film American Graffiti. Set in 1962 Modesto, California, it showed the whole gang struggling with the impending freedom of adulthood, but they all graduated. Except in 1962 only about 60 percent of high school students got a diploma.
Or the TV series Happy Days. Set in 1950’s Milwaukee it didn’t quite convey the reality that back then only about 55 percent of high school students actually graduated, according to Education Week data. The same era’s Rebel Without a Cause managed to focus on James Dean in the title role wrestling with his identity as an adolescent, but made him out to be the token rebel, not conveying that about half his class would fail to earn a diploma.
And then there’s the 1936 cultural propaganda film, Reefer Madness, which tells the story of what happens to high school kids who try marijuana. But even with the demon weed as a scapegoat, the film didn’t acknowledge that in 1936 only one third of high school students were graduating anyway.
Things are looking better for graduation rates today. The US Department of Education released new data this week stating that the nation’s high school graduation rate reached record levels last year with 82 percent of high school students earning a diploma “on time.” Think about that number for a moment, though: an 82 percent graduation rate means that 18 percent of high school students don’t graduate with a diploma within four years. That’s roughly one out of five high school students.
When you break down graduation rates by ethnicity, some clear contrasts emerge: 88 percent of white students graduate on time, 78 percent of Hispanic students, 75 percent of black students and 72 percent of Native American and Native Alaskan students. In other words, if you’re white, approximately one out of every nine students fails to graduate high school on time, while one out of four minority students, on average, fail to walk off stage with that diploma in hand. That’s not exactly the rosy view of high school the media likes to portray, even in the most contemporary of films and shows.
There’s also a gender gap, which is something that’s been growing for many years, though it is rarely referenced by a media focused on emphasizing “girl power.” According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the male high school dropout rate declined from 12.3 percent in 1990 to 7.1 percent in 2014. That’s good. But for females, the rate declined from 11.8 percent in 1990 to a far lower 5.9 percent in 2014.
This gender gap grows in college. The Pew Research Center reports that 63 percent of female high school graduates and 61 percent of male high school graduates were enrolled in college back in 1994. By 2012, the share of young women enrolled in college immediately after high school had increased to 71 percent while exactly the same percentage of male high school graduates went on to college as did in 1994. For the 2016 school year, The Department of Education reports that 11.7 million females will attend college compared with 8.8 million males. That means that almost 58 percent of college undergrads are female, a number that continues to grow. When will pop culture begin to reflect female domination on college campuses? (Sorry, but Legally Blonde doesn’t count).
So what is preventing high school kids from finishing school? Business Insider analyzed the high school drop out rate and found some surprising results as to why children quit. The top five reasons reported are: failing too many classes, being bored in school, becoming a caregiver, finding school not relevant to their life, and having to earn money to support their family.
If you work in Hollywood and are looking for a solid premise for a film, however, the heart of this drama could simply be that the increase in graduation rate reflects easier criteria for matriculating. In fact, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, US high school students have gone backwards in their scores: math scores remain unchanged in the last ten years and reading scores have actually decreased since 1992. (Perhaps a remake of Easy A is in order?).
Of course, there’s reason to be optimistic that a record 82 percent of high school students are graduating, whether or not they’re going on to a four-year college. More graduates produce a better workforce and a stronger economy. But there’s plenty of work left to be done to really offer educational opportunities to all. Maybe there’s a movie in that?