These lines are taken from the poem “Harlem” by African-American poet Langston Hughes. Written in 1951, the poem asks what happens when people cannot achieve their dreams because of racial prejudice. More recently, it inspired the title of a 1995 report on high school dropouts by the Educational Testing Service (ETS)—Dreams Deferred: High School Dropouts in the United States. The report uses some of the latest information from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education to discuss the hundreds of thousands of young people who drop out of school each year.
The dreams of these young dropouts are said to be “deferred,” or postponed, because more and more jobs today require a high level of skill and education. By dropping out of high school, teens are “locking themselves out of mainstream society and are barred from good-paying jobs,”2 says the ETS. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, in 1996 high school dropouts earned an average salary of only $14,013, about one-third less than the $21,431 earned by high school graduates. In addition, dropouts comprise half of all heads of households on welfare and more than half of all people in jail.
Despite these sobering facts, 5 percent of all teens in high school drop out each year. This percentage has remained fairly stable over the past ten years. While it may not seem high, in 1996 it represented 485,000 young people— almost half a million. Many of the 1996 dropouts were over eighteen, but almost half—43 percent—were only fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen years old.
It is also important to realize that if 5 percent of students drop out each year, the dropout rate for all four years of high school can be much higher. Four-year dropout rates are especially high in large urban districts. In 1992–1993, one out of four urban districts had a dropout rate that was greater than 35 percent. Dropout rates for Hispanic students exceed the national average and are...
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