"About schools the media report the present with no apparent historical awareness that it’s the same story once again." Perhaps many of Ed Week's readers will remember this comment from Gerald Bracey's "Education's Groundhog Day" in Commentary of February 2, 2005. He was speaking of the poor math achievement of US students compared with their peers in other countries, and what this meant in regard to this nation’s lost competitiveness.
I recalled Bracey's article while just recently reading another series of articles in our national news media about the dropout crisis in our public schools, especially the schools in our inner cities. Clearly the writers of these articles had little or no apparent historical awareness that this "crisis," if you will, has been with us at least since 1969, the year that the ratio of diplomas awarded to the number of 17-year-olds in the population was at its highest point.
Since that year this ratio has been in decline, and severely so in our large cities with large impoverished and minority populations. Today, for example, we learn that in Detroit the graduation rate, meaning the percent of entering freshmen who complete four years of high school in four years, is 25.
That does sound like a crisis, doesn't it. And readers with no more historical awareness than the writers are appalled and want to know what our leaders are going to do about it.
Should, shouldn't we all, as the educational leaders in the city of Houston are doing, go out into the neighborhoods and knock at the doors of students who are staying away from school and try to persuade them, with carrots (payment for school attendance) rather than sticks, to return?
If I hadn't read about this crisis over and over again throughout a good part of my own life, I might have joined the good people of Houston out there in the neighborhoods, knocking at the doors, but I'm now convinced it's wrong, all of it, not only the solutions proposed, the knocking on the doors and such like, but even more important the fashion in which the problem has been posed.
In my opinion we no more have a dropout problem than we have an attrition problem, say, at West Point. However, in regard to the public schools, if not West Point, we certainly do have a dropout industry to which untold numbers of educators, ed schools, and politicians are contributing an unending series of reforms, reforms that so far have been without measurable effect, let alone success.
Not a year goes by, not six, even three months, that we don't read headlines such as the following, these all taken from news articles appearing on the very same day, October 23, of this year:
The High School Dropout's Economic Ripple Effect,
Mayors Go Door to Door, Personally Encouraging Students to Stay in the Game for Their Own Good — and for the Sake of the City. (the Wall Street Journal)
2,500 dropouts a week in Texas Public Schools! (the San Antonio Express-News)
Report: Kids less likely to graduate than parents (the Associated Press)
School Diploma = $18K More Pay, the High Price Of Dropping Out (the Lancaster New Era).
Twice as Many High School Dropouts Unemployed & Living in Poverty Than Diploma-Holding Peers (the PR Newswire).
Dropout Battle Needs More Help (The Santa Fe New Mexican).
Why is the use of the term dropout in regard to our public schools so widespread? There isn't a program or school in the country that doesn't lose members of its entering class. Be it the Marines, the Air Force Academy, Harvard University, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Julliard School of Music, and if I were to do the research I might find that in some cases the “dropout” or attrition rate were higher than that of the Detroit Public Schools.
And at these schools, as at most places, those who for whatever reason leave are not treated as dropouts, as failures, as having given up their chances for a better life. In most cases everyone accepts that they simply made a wrong choice and that when they realized it they corrected their earlier mistake.
Of course there are major differences between the public schools and the institutions, and any number of other similar, mentioned. For the most part the kids in our public high schools haven't chosen to be there, and it’s much more remarkable, I think, that so many of them do choose to finish something they never chose to undertake. In this regard dropping out seems to me entirely normal.
We, society, have turned this highly normal and understandable situation into a problem by insisting that the kids should stay where they are. Why? When will public high school, which is at present mostly a word and number skills preparation for college, be seen as something not for all kids, not even perhaps for the majority, but strictly for the minority who want, or in a number instances whose parents want, that preparation?
Our mistake has been, at least since the beginning of the so-called dropout problem, and probably well before, to provide nothing for these kids for whom book learning, algebra, essay writing etc. are just not very interesting, not something they want to have for themselves.
To immediately do away with the dropout problem we need only to provide young people with a wide variety of realistic career paths, reflecting the seven or more intelligences or talents one or more of which all kids, possess.
The reasons most often given for why kids should stay in school and why dropping out is bad are principally two. First, those who stay in school and obtain their diploma will obtain better jobs and have higher life time earnings than those who don't. While that finding on the face of it does seem to be without dispute it probably mostly follows from the fact that we provide so little in the way of realistic career paths for those who quit school. And given that how could they possible make out better than those who don't?
Second, our nation is in competition with other nations for new sources of jobs and wealth, and it may very well be true that the greatest source of new jobs and new wealth be the educational attainment level of the population. The most skilled and resultantly best paid jobs will go to where the people are best able to perform them, for high job performance does relate directly to one's educational level.
High school dropouts as currently categorized and compartimentalized in our society will not help us to be more competitive in the race for a larger share of the world's economic wealth. But new jobs and new wealth, while important is only one of the things that life is all about. By making it the be-all and the end-all we have created the dropout problem.
This is the kind of reasoning that is the source of the "crisis" talk. This is why, our making earning power and economic competitiveness all important, we have a dropout industry. As long as we pose the problem in this fashion nothing will change and we'll go on, as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, living the same day over and over again.
How was it in the movie that Bill Murray did finally break out and move on to a new day? In his case it was by an attitude, a radical change in how he saw the world and especially the people about him. For when he was able to value others for themselves, when he was able to recognize the worth of others, and no longer be so entirely wrapped up in himself, then he could move on and live with others, one new day after another.
The realization that we need to come to, similar to that arrived at by Bill Murray in the movie, is that not everyone should take the same path, most often that of preparation for college, in order to have a good life. The realization is that there are, while perhaps not as many paths as there are people, many more paths than we are currently providing for
our kids in our public schools.
For the time being anyway dropping out is probably a good thing. It does show, if nothing else, a resistance to an otherwise all powerful school establishment, as well as an independence of spirit, the recognition and acceptance of which could become the basis of a complete restructuring of our public schools.