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Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as In With the New

In With the New

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School dropouts represent public education’s most dramatic and costly failure.

Perhaps more than any other indicator, school dropouts represent public education’s most dramatic and costly failure. Nationally, about a quarter of the students who enter 9th grade leave school before the end of 12th grade, and we’ve known for a long time that too many urban districts have dropout rates as high as 50 percent. A report released this past summer confirmed that the schools with the most severe dropout problems are predominantly attended by poor and minority students.

The study, by researchers at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, found that about 20 percent of high schools with enrollments of more than 300 students—concentrated in 50 large and medium-size cities and 10 southern and southwestern states—fuel the dropout crisis by losing, on average, 40 percent of their students each year. Nearly half of the nation’s African American students and 40 percent of Latino students attend these roughly 2,000 "dropout factories." Only 11 percent of the students who enroll are white.

The clear implication is that we could achieve a major breakthrough in our decades-long effort to improve public education by fixing only 2,000 high schools. That surely ought to be doable for a nation that put men on the moon. But after about a decade of hard work, the news is grim. From 1993 to 2002, the number of worst-performing schools increased by 75 percent as the overall number of high schools rose by just 8 percent.

Chicago—one of the cities with the highest dropout rates—has decided that the time has come for draconian measures and is embarking on a radical new course in school reform. Mayor Richard Daley announced in late June that he’s pursuing the "only solution left" to fix public education. Over the next six years, Chicago will shut down about 60 of its worst schools and replace them with more than 100 smaller schools that have new staffs and new programs. A third of these will be charter schools, a third will be operated by independent contractors, and a third will be run by the district.

The new schools—most of them secondary schools—will serve the poor minority students identified by the Johns Hopkins study as those most likely to drop out. And Mayor Daley promises that the businesses and nonprofits running two-thirds of the new schools will have public funding, freedom from regulations, and considerable autonomy in designing their education programs. One business group has already raised half of the $50 million being sought to help fund start-up costs of the new schools.

For the first time, a major school district has publicly acknowledged that we cannot provide the educational opportunities our children need and deserve solely by trying to fix conventional schools that aren’t working. The systemic problems, particularly in high schools, are too intractable and the culture of failure is too deeply embedded. We must pursue a parallel strategy that creates new schools that are different from traditional ones (and each other) and reflect the diversity of today’s and tomorrow’s students.

Despite praise for the plan among Chicago business, political, and school reform leaders, there will surely be fierce resistance—especially from the teachers’ union and parents who protest closing any school. If the Chicago plan is to succeed, founders of the new schools will have to abandon the structures and practices that have thwarted continuous improvement in the present system. They will need to design learning centers that address the realities and needs of our young people and the world they’ll inherit.

This is truly a time to "think outside the box," and if it does that, Chicago could well become a model for the nation’s urban school districts.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 16, Issue 1, Page 4

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