The Cultural Context of Dropping Out

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Americans always have believed in myths. Despite our fascination with the scientific, we find it preferable to accept as true some pretty fantastic explanations for problems whose solutions, if sought rationally, would be as unpalatable as accepting a spherical and heliocentric world is to the Flat Earth Society.

One area in which this clash of distasteful reality and comforting myth seems unavoidable is education.

A favored national myth, for example, holds that educational institutions can eliminate poverty and facilitate upward mobility for everyone. This only has validity, however, if children stay in school, and there is considerable evidence that more and more are dropping out before graduation. Dropout rates for all students have not fallen below 25 percent since the 1960's. In most major cities, cumulative dropout rates exceed 40 percent.

Since increases in cohort survival, or the degree to which the dropout rate is decreased, is a quintessential criterion for the success of educational innovation, the present dropout rate is a symptom that something is terribly wrong with the system.

Yet, for 30 years or more, we have believed that, by manipulating the educational system, we could overcome trade deficits, technological lag, poverty, racism, and moral degradation. Now, despite that manipulation, it is clear that the United States is in deep trouble. Far more people are economically and socially disadvantaged than our affluence warrants. Our productive capacity is exceeded by almost every other industrialized nation, and the quality of our lives and goods is declining.

The blame for these deficits has been laid at the schoolhouse door. And, once again, America has entered one of its cyclical campaigns to bash the education system.

There are good reasons to want to reform schools. But the antecedents of the current school failure lie not in curriculum and instruction, but in contemporary socio-economic change, and in the cultural and historical experiences that blind us to what it really would take to solve social evils. They find expression in the dissonance between what schools actually have done in a society and what we expect them to do, and between today's socio-economic realities and the outmoded models upon which we have based our educational reform.

Much of our cultural mythology comes from generalizations about the experience of early settlers in America, who belonged to the dominant culture, not an underclass, and for whom the New World's expanding and labor-intensive economy offered real opportunities for betterment. As Protestants, these early immigrants believed that education provided a primary and necessary avenue to salvation, measured in this world by material well-being. They believed that schooling led to moral virtue and intellectual enlightenment, occupational success, and social mobility. If individuals failed, it was their fault. People who did not take advantage of schooling were lazy and undeserving, or handicapped by unfortunate circumstances. In either case, they constituted only a small group of marginal people, who were irrelevant to society's overall productivity.

These myths are still held to be true for individuals from privileged cultural groups--those who most closely resemble America's original European settlers. But when they are used to structure the rules by which individuals from an underclass must operate, they begin to look like a stacked deck.

A real problem in contemporary America is that, for the first time, schools must teach students who never before were in school--the handicapped, the unmotivated, and the language limited. In the past, these youths were generally either not eligible for enrollment, or already in the workforce. Institutions also must cope now with a genuine underclass, people who are native born and racially and economically identifiable, and who justifiably feel as though they have no possibility for betterment.

Despite this, however, Americans continue to believe that schooling can both raise the general level of enlightenment and morality and, more important, help overcome inherited handicaps, particularly poverty.

While we laud and reward status achieved by hard work and educational attainment--and discredit any that appears to be facilitated by birth or inheritance--we ignore the obvious connections between social station and educational success. It has been easier to deny the existence of class structure in America than to change either the school system which supports it or the cultural ideology by which it is contradicted.

Until recently, we have lived fairly comfortably with our ambivalence. Fortuitous socio-economic conditions helped; the agricultural and industrial sectors still absorbed the bulk of unskilled workers, and most people could manage with the most limited of educational opportunities and achievement. What need there was for more technical skills was provided for by the comprehensive high schools--a working- and middle-class alternative to the private, secondary-level academies patronized by the college-bound children of the upper classes.

When a society does not need to serve the "never in'' educationally, the "dropout'' is not a problem. But one of the consequences of achieving universal school attendance is that those who are not in school become much more noticeable, especially if non-attendance means not being able to find a job.

The success of high schools in the 1980's is determined by overall scores on standardized tests, and by the number of students who graduate in four years, find jobs,? and go on to college. But judged on any of these standards, today's schools are inadequate. Test scores have declined over the past decades in ways that cannot be explained simply by changes in the student body or the tests. Rates for dropouts and teen-age unemployment indicate that students are neither graduating nor finding work in desirable numbers. More importantly, because of higher education's surplus of graduates and inflated credentials, even those prepared for college face a less-than-certain pay off on their years of schooling. Increasingly, they must compete with high-school graduates for the same employment opportunities.

Diplomas no longer guarantee jobs; neither do they guarantee that an individual possesses a given level of skills. Furthermore, the levels of skill and certification attained are distributed differentially by characteristics such as race, gender, ethnicity, or place of residence. Under these conditions, we can no longer hide the reality that schools act to create social classes.

Two new wrinkles in contemporary society may make this connection more obvious: the addition of middle- and upper- class students to the dropout ranks, and the growing urban-suburban "stratification'' of school and societal problems.

As the system's overall deficiencies begin to affect even those groups once privileged, the outlines of inherent inequities become sharper. Dropouts are a symptom of something wrong, and that symptom has become more acute for middle- and upper-class patrons of public schooling as the school-failure population enlarges to include their own children.

Beyond that recognition, however, is the fact that problems in schooling have become vividly clustered in urban centers.

Increasing concentrations of poverty and segregation in the de-industrialized inner cores of large metropolitan areas has transformed the fabric of city life. Good schools are in the suburbs, and all inner-city social problems, including those of education and employment, have become less amenable to traditional solutions. Bluntly speaking, nothing works here. And this is because society has changed and the schools have not.

By the year 2000, one out of every three children enrolled in the public schools will belong to a non-white minority group. This demographic change, coupled with desegregation efforts, will mean that, even in suburbia, teachers must cope with problems they never before encountered: those of mainstreamed handicapped children and children who cannot speak English.

In addition, the changing nature of the labor force will mean that most new jobs will be in the relatively low-skilled and automated service sector. People will learn quickly what such jobs require, and will seek the minimal levels of schooling needed. Consequently, the promise of pay-offs to education will be a reality only to the few for whom room at the top of the constricting economic ladder still remains.

In the face of such realities, however, schools have changed for the worst. Instruction may be more frustrating, inane, and boring than ever. Students take fewer and easier courses, even in college-preparatory tracks, and many schools offer no higher-level science and mathematics. Fear of controversy has watered down texts till nothing remains to challenge thought. Students read less well, know less math, and often cannot construct a meaningful paragraph. Concern with the acquisition of minimum competency in the basic skills has pegged school performance to achievement on machine-scored tests of basic skills and little else. Teachers are poorly prepared and prepare their students poorly, giving them little individual attention and complaining of being "burned out.''

As teachers find more of their students unteachable, students in turn often find life in school unbearable.

It is no wonder that dropout programs, which try to bring "burnt out'' students back to such conditions, are not notably successful.

In the past, schools lured children into classrooms by structuring clubs, games, and activities for them. But by 1980, 70 percent of all teen-agers worked during the school year, had no time for sports or clubs, and often were too tired to do homework. As schools lose their centrality in the lives of children, they also lose their capacity to hold them until graduation.

Faced with these circumstances, and the fact that the promised link between well-paying jobs and going to school no longer holds true, there is evidence that minority students now find the situation so hopeless that their oppositional behavior causes them to reject any form of achievement as "becoming white.''
So what is to be done? I think it is time for Americans to look seriously at both their society and its schools, and to treat them separately. If the goal of school reform is to eliminate poverty, it will also require a radical alteration of the social and political structure, to distribute jobs and income. And this the schools cannot initiate.

We should not, of course, ignore the schools, for they truly are in terrible shape. But this is an instructional issue, and one of teacher training and overall organizational management. We already know how to teach children well. What we cannot seem to set aside is the myth of cheapness and quick fixes. We simply have not been willing as a society to pay the financial price required for competent teachers and the political price for challenging and meaningful texts.

As a nation, we now spend more on cosmetics and dog food than we do on schooling. Commitment alone will not be sufficient to make real the myth of upward mobility through education in a world of seemingly intractable social problems.

Vol. 6, Issue 33, Page 28

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