Dropouts: Attitudes and Antidotes

I have to admit that I didn’t fully appreciate the dropout crisis while a serving as a public school superintendent. While budgeting for my third year, I recall asking why there were fewer students in each class from 9 to 12—the drop off seemed to be higher than the publicly reported 93% (which turned out to be the percentage of seniors that received diplomas). It didn’t really hit me until a few years later when my daughter’s class graduated and only 400 of the class of 600 were there that day. I remember counting names in the program, doing the math, and spending the next 90 minutes wondering where the other 200 young people were. That moment, where drop out math became real and personal, resulted in spending the next 10 years working on the problem.

Graduation rates are hard to calculate but we know that about half of low income and minority students fail to graduate. The causes are complicated. Perhaps most foundational are our attitudes about and aspirations for young people. On the Front Lines of Schools, a report by Civic Enterprises, explores attitudes of teachers and principals in regards to the drop out crisis in America.

Here’s the most disturbing finding: “Less than one-third of teachers (32 percent) believed we should expect all students to meet high academic standards, graduate with the skills to do college-level work, and provide extra support to struggling students to help them meet those standards.”

Only 20 percent of teachers and 21 percent of principals felt boredom was a factor in most cases of high school dropout. “ After visiting hundreds of high schools, I think about 95% are boring—just measure the energy level in the hallway versus classroom. We’ve succeeded in making learning boring.

“Less than one-third of teachers believe that schools should expect all students to meet high academic standards, graduate with the skills to do college-level work, and provide extra support to struggling students to help them meet those standards. ”All students college ready’ is admittedly a tall order but without the expectation that all kids should at least be able to pass a community college placement exam and start earning credit with out remediation, kids are virtually shut out of family wage employment.

“Eighty-one percent of teachers and 89 percent of principals felt their school was doing a good or excellent job.” If we take seriously the task of preparing young people for the world they will inherit, the real number is probably 20% good or excellent (and not much higher in the private schools).

Here’s the one where I agree with teachers, “Sixty-one percent of teachers and 45 percent of principals felt lack of support at home was a factor in most cases of students’ dropping out.” No question that this crisis is a complicated mixture of culture and delivery. I’m not blaming historically underserved neighborhoods—just recognizing that a culture of college-bound expectations makes it far easier for schools to deliver results.

Here’s three people attacking the drop out crisis with some success:

· Bill Milliken, founder of Communities in Schools, the nation’s largest dropout prevention network. Read Bill’s book The Last Dropout for the full story.

· Dennis Littky and Elliott Washor co-founded Big Picture Learning, a global network of 70 personalized urban schools with a 92% graduation rate. They also lead the development of the Alternative High School Initiative, a group of 12 youth development organizations creating schools for the least well served students in America.

· John Murray runs AdvancePath Academics, a network of academies that help over aged/under credited students catch up and graduate on time. John is also past chair of the National Dropout Prevention Network.

It’s a complicated problem, but it comes down to people that care enough to do something about it. And these guys are changing lives.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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