Working on the ‘dropout factory’ assembly line

2007 might be described, in education circles at least, as The Year of the Dropout Factory, given the steady flow of think-tank reports, magazine features, and op-ed articles using that highly charged phrase. The most recent assault on the lack of ‘student stickiness’ in some American high schools comes from Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University and author of reports like “Locating the Dropout Crisis” and “What Your Community Can Do to End Its Dropout Crisis,” and John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises and author of The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.

In a recent op-ed published in the Christian Science Monitor (11/23) and widely republished by news services, Balfanz and Bridgeland reiterated their call for a Civic Marshall Plan to eradicate the dropout problem:

In more than 1,700 schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia, less than two-thirds, and often fewer than half, of students graduate year after year, according to federal data recently analyzed by Johns Hopkins University. Half of all dropouts and two-thirds of minority-student dropouts are concentrated in 12 percent of America’s high schools. Even heroic teachers and resilient students are finding themselves outmatched by the challenges they face in under-supported schools in high-poverty urban neighborhoods and rural counties.

… The overwhelming number of dropouts surveyed in the report, The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, recognized that graduating is vital to their success. They told us they would have stayed on track to graduate if school had been more relevant, challenging, and supportive of their needs.

…A powerful force aims to…solve the dropout crisis by listening to and heeding their advice. A broad coalition of educators and business and community groups — including America’s Promise Alliance, State Farm, the National Education Association, US Chamber of Commerce, and leading civil rights groups — are supporting a 10-point plan and spearheading 100 dropout summits in all 50 states.

…The facts are too overwhelming to ignore. America needs no less than a Civic Marshall Plan to move from a dropout nation to a graduation nation.

All told, the coalition pledged to ending the silent epidemic claims more than 100 organizations, as diverse as cable television’s MTV and the National Governors Association. In addition, the Bill & Melinda Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations have launched a Strong American Schools initiative to keep issues “relevant to the dropout epidemic – such as teacher quality, rigorous standards, and extra learning supports” in front of the 2008 Presidential candidates. A national Silent Epidemic summit last May featured First Lady Laura Bush as the keynote speaker.

Another major player in the dropout policy arena is the Alliance for Excellent Education, which reported last January that if all students in the class of 2006 had graduated on time, the U.S. economy would have gained an additional $309 billion in income over their lifetimes. (The calculation was based on a Census Bureau estimate that high school graduates in 2004 earned almost $10,000 more than those who did not graduate from high school.) The Alliance also noted that dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, go to prison, and seek government assistance, furthering their negative effect on the economy. (See this version of the report, updated in October 2007.)

We don’t mean to make light of the dropout issue or the many efforts to call it to the attention of the American public. Dropout rates have been under-reported for as long as dropout data has been collected, and while education leaders have some legitimate concerns about what counts as a dropout, there’s little doubt that many high schools have failed to take actions (like Freshman 101 electives, targeted reading intervention programs, or initiatives to track and engage every student from ninth grade forward) that have been proven to increase graduation rates. Indeed, the dropout problem plagues many suburban and small-town high schools in America that aren’t typically considered “high need.”

No, our concern is much the same as it is in other areas of debate over the best ways to solve education’s many problems. We see little evidence that the crusading politicians and organizations (with the exception of teacher organizations like the NEA) are actively seeking out the ideas and insights of America’s teacher leaders, who live with the dropout problem and its consequences every day. On the contrary, the coalition’s flagship report, The Silent Epidemic, amounts to a harsh indictment of teacher disinterest and disengagement, based on student surveys and focus groups — with no opportunity for teacher leaders to offer their understandings of why students feel the way they do, or to propose teacher solutions to the problems described. Ironically, the coalition’s own 10-point solution doesn’t include the word “teacher” even once in more than 900 words of text.

[Assemblyline1_2] What advice might teacher leaders offer, if asked? Here’s one possibility: The Silent Epidemic report gives tacit endorsement to No Child Left Behind’s high-stakes accountability approach while also calling for a more engaging and relevant curriculum “that connects what [students] are learning in the classroom with real life experiences and with work.” Many teacher leaders, especially those working in high-needs schools, would tell policymakers that one positive step toward the kind of problem- and project-based learning that increases relevance and engagement would be to lessen the obsessive focus on standardized (and curriculum-narrowing) testing and offer financial and moral support for schools to more vigorously pursue 21st Century learning concepts and assessments.

And while the Strong American Schools campaign supported by the Broad and Gates foundations is less sanguine about NCLB and advocates for truly professional levels of teacher compensation (to their eternal credit), even there, the policy recommendations are couched in language about actions that will be done for or to teachers, not in partnership with teachers.

When will school reform advocates, who often point out that teachers are the key to educational improvement, finally see teacher leaders as allies and partners who have a vast store of experience and insight to share? Until that happens, we’ll remain stuck in an industrial school model, where teachers are relegated to roles as assembly-line workers in the Dropout Factory.

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