Ohio is deeply mired in a dropout crisis, with more than 20,000 of its high-school students leaving school each year. A recent analysis found that 112,610 dropouts occurred between 2006 and 2010 in Ohio’s public-school system.

It is absolutely crucial that the Buckeye State address dropouts, with fury. Why? The dropout crisis is a massive waste of human potential and it will eventually strain the state’s public welfare systems. Several economists have examined the consequences of dropping out. Here’s what they’ve found:

  • Lost earnings for dropouts: Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University estimates that over a lifetime high school dropouts earn $260,000 less than those who graduate high school (but complete no further schooling);
  • Lost revenue for governments: Rouse also estimates a $60,000 per dropout loss in state and federal income taxes over a lifetime, compared to someone completing just a high-school diploma and;
  • Increased public expenditures: Jane Waldfogel and her colleagues at Columbia University estimate that America could save as much as $2 billion dollars per year if welfare recipients had graduated high school. Meanwhile, dropouts also have a higher likelihood of incarceration, needing public aid for healthcare, and engaging in criminal activity. These consequences of dropping out increase public expenditures—and increase taxes.  

There is no debate: The costs, both to a dropout and to society writ large, are enormous. What can Ohio policymakers do in response? To deal with the issue over the long-haul, Ohio should aggressively implement the third-grade reading guarantee, the Common Core, and ensure a flourishing marketplace of schools. In addition to these bold initiatives, the state policymakers should also lift the stature of vocational education to ensure that all students—particularly those who may not have college aspirations (and perhaps even for those who do)—are on track for a well-paying job after high school. Here are a few more details about actions the state should take to tackle the dropout epidemic.

Buckle down on the third-grade reading guarantee

Kids who aren’t good early readers aren’t likely to graduate from high school. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has produced a fantastic series of reports documenting the correlation between poor reading skills and dismal later-life outcomes. In fact, one study found that third-graders who did not read proficiently were four times more likely to leave school without a diploma. This finding is similar to a study that tracked a cohort of New York City students. Of those who failed their third-grade reading exam, barely one in three graduated high school, compared to a 90 percent graduation rate among those who passed.

Enacted in 2012 and in effect for the first time this year, the third-grade reading guarantee is a preventative measure to reduce the number of dropouts. Reading is the foundation of learning; in fact, Governor Kasich nailed it, when he said: “If you can’t read you might as well forget it.” Schools must ensure that their early learners can read at grade level before entering fourth grade, and that is good policy. It does no good to promote struggling readers who will fall further and further behind their peers into middle and high school. Evidence from Florida, which has had a third-grade retention law since 2003, shows promising gains for retained pupils: compared to similar students who were promoted, the impact of retention was worth more than a year’s worth of learning in reading. (The short-term boost to achievement, however, tends to dissipate by middle school, suggesting that schools must be vigilant with their vulnerable readers.) Ohio’s policymakers must resist the temptation to scrap or water-down the third grade reading guarantee in the face of complaints. In fact, it’s time for schools to strap in, hunker down, and seek all available resources to ensure that every child is reading at grade level before they enter fourth grade.

Aggressively implement the Common Core standards

Ohio has adopted and is implementing new, rigorous academic standards in math and English Language Arts. These standards, the Common Core State Standards, replace the state’s old, sub-par content standards, and they express the learning goals for students at each grade level, so that they’ll be “college and career ready.” In our 2010 analysis of state standards, we rated the Common Core considerably higher than Ohio’s old ones. The standards play a pivotal role in Ohio’s much-needed reboot of public education, which includes not only new standards but also new assessments aligned to them.

Across Ohio, teachers attest to the quality of these new standards. In a series of Cleveland Plain-Dealer articles, reporters discovered that teachers are demanding more of their students under the Common Core. In the English classroom, teachers are now more apt to have their students show “the evidence” to justify a conclusion. At Moreland Hills Elementary school near Cleveland, Brad Anderson told the Plain-Dealer that “it’s not enough [for pupils] to just say what you think the theme is. You need specific evidence.” Meanwhile, in math classrooms, teachers are now encouraged to link numeracy with real-life applications. A former “Teacher of the Year” in Bedford (Northeast Ohio) said that the Common Core has compelled her to sharpen her teaching skills : “I thought I was a really good math teacher,” she said. “But now, when I hear them talking about math and knowing it, I know they’ll know it for life.”

Some in Ohio have questioned the Common Core, up to and including a bill that would repeal the standards. Backtracking on the Common Core, however, is not an option: Not when 20,000 kids are dropping out; not when 40 percent of our college-bound students require remedial college coursework (predicting drop-out during college). Properly implemented, the Common Core will engage the mind of many children with rigorous, intellectually demanding schoolwork. This might just keep more students on the school-college-career pathway.

Improve the quality Ohio’s rapidly expanding school-choice marketplace

To its credit, Ohio has an expansive school-choice market, and families and students are benefiting from these options. Such options include vouchers (or “scholarships”), which over 30,000 needy students use to attend a private school. More than 70,000 students participate in a school district’s open enrollment program. Roughly 120,000 students attend a public charter school—and of these pupils about one-in-four enroll in an online program. There are approximately 125,000 high-school students who participate in a career-and-technical education program. Meanwhile, countless other youngsters attend an intra-district “magnet” program, an early college academy, or a regional STEM school. There is even a school for gifted children near Cleveland.

As the school-choice marketplace expands, Ohio must also ensure that it functions as intended. This includes ensuring transparent, reliable, and accessible information for parents about school quality. (The state’s A-F rating school rating system is a milestone achievement for transparency.) Transportation policy must enable students to attend a school that is not their “assigned” one, and for urban areas especially, adopting a “common application” could be a major step forward for parents who have a multitude of school choice. To ensure quality schools in the state’s charter program, authorizer policies should be examined and strengthened where necessary. For district-run schools, the state should be able to intervene in or close a low-performing school. As the marketplace grows, state policy must ensure that quality keeps pace with quantity, so that no kid gets stuck in a “dropout-factory-type” school.

Raise the stature of vocational education

In a nationwide survey of students in grades five through twelve, just 55 percent of them said they were “engaged” in their school work. Is there any wonder that students—particularly those who are struggling academically—drop out? To engage students who may struggle in a traditional academic setting, Ohio should ensure that there are plentiful technical, vocational, and apprenticeship opportunities—and that they are of high-quality (i.e., imparting skills needed for gainful employment).

Ohio already has a system of career-and-technical education centers. Additionally, a few schools have begun to embrace partnerships with local employers who provide hands-on experiences for high-school students. For example, Marysville school district is partnering with Honda to create an early college high school that will include a manufacturing component. In Eastern Appalachia, Southern Local is creating the Utica Shale Academy charter school which will prepare students for careers in the oil and gas industry. Other high-performing countries, like Germany and Switzerland, use apprenticeships (part-time formal education; part-time workplace training) to educate and train young people. According to one source, 70 percent of Swiss teenagers are in an apprenticeship program. Ohio could create a similar “dual system” for its high school students.


Ohio has much to be proud of in its education system. The state regularly performs in the top-tier of states on the NAEP exams, and it has one of the nation’s best university systems. But, as the dropout rate statistics—along with other indicators like the state’s remediation rate—suggest, now is not the time for the Buckeye State to rest on its laurels. Not all children have the opportunity for a great education. To address this, Ohio must ratchet up its expectations for K-12 schools. If done well, the third-grade reading guarantee and the Common Core will accomplish this. The state must also increase quality school choice, so that all children can attend a school that engages them in their academic and career interests. These ongoing efforts will pay significant dividends for the state in the long-run. Meantime, Ohio should also lift the stature of vocational education, provide mentoring and apprenticeship programs, and expose youngsters to career opportunities at an earlier age. 

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