What Will Recalibrated Standards Hold For Dropout-Prone Students?

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American public education has begun to change. Schools are challenging students with ever more difficult subject matter and expecting mastery at increasing levels of sophistication. While necessary and appealing, this drive toward higher standards raises justifiable concern: Are schools promoting academic excellence for those who already have a competitive advantage, while turning away from the far more difficult task of fostering achievement among those who do not? It is a bad sign that despite improvements in the mean performance of students on standardized tests, the dropout rate in urban areas throughout the country is still over 40 percent.

Experience has suggested, and research confirmed, the importance of setting high standards for students. Because it is relatively easy to mandate standards, we have done so. But we have also learned, I would argue, how to educate young people so as to reduce the predictive value of race and class on achievement. Yet, because it is infinitely more difficult organizationally for our schools and school systems to act on that knowledge, we haven't.

Today, more than ever, we need to do so, however. And one place to look for models is among the examples set by some relative newcomers: the urban alternative schools. The best alternative public schools of the 1970's offered smaller, more academically focused, interpersonally compelling, and, broadly speaking, socially rooted environments. If other schools are willing to follow their example, then we can take an important step toward the realization of academic competence among the most disadvantaged.

My view that we do know how to educate most of our children comes from the two-year study of New York City's public alternative high schools that I conducted for the city's Public Education Association. These alternative high schools exclusively serve truants and students whose academic performance and behavior patterns put them at high risk for dropping out; thus, the schools are New York's experts in dropout prevention. The PEA hoped to learn how the alternative high schools successfully taught their at-risk population.

For the 1981 fall semester, the PEA study compiled course-credit and attendance data for 25 percent of the incoming students at eight alternative schools and then compared the results with similar data from the students' earlier high-school careers. As alternative-school students, this group of nearly 300 earned an average of 60 percent more credits and cut their absences by nearly 40 percent--clearly an important break from past patterns. When we returned to the schools in the spring of 1983 and reviewed an additional year and a half of student-achievement data, we found that the improvements had held up over time.

Unfortunately, we also found that despite significant improvement, about 25 percent of the 300 students had dropped out. An additional 20 percent were very over-age for their grade and not earning credits at a rate sufficient for graduation by age 21, the age limit for public-school eligibility in New York. On the bright side, however, we noted that among these very at-risk, dropout-prone young people, 75 percent were still in school--with 55 percent proceeding at a rate that would permit eventual graduation.

Three questions naturally arose: (1) Were there differences between the academic profiles of successful and unsuccessful alternative-school students? (2) Why did students in alternative schools appear to be doing so much better than they had in traditional schools? (3) What did this suggest we do about the education of at-risk adolescents?

The likelihood of students either persisting or dropping out seemed to hinge on two factors. First were the characteristics of the students at the time they entered the alternative school. Not surprisingly, the older a student was and the weaker that student's previous school record, the lower the likelihood that he or she would stay to graduate. (Interestingly, alternative schools had managed to reduce the predictive value of performance on standardized reading and math tests. Poorer readers were not more likely to drop out.) The second indicator that a student was a dropout risk was his or her performance in the first semester at an alternative school. Students either connected to the school in the first semester and significantly improved their credit accumulation and attendance or they languished and eventually dropped out. The school's effect tended to be either immediate or nonexistent.

Given the relationship between students' age and prior academic performance and the likelihood of their dropping out, it seemed probable that schools attracting the highest-risk students would have, on average, the lowest proportion of persisting students. Testing this empirically, we found it to be almost precisely the case. One school, however, deviated considerably from that expectation.

Satellite Academy attracted young people in the median range of achievement for alternative schools--former tru-ants, 16 to 17 years old, about two years behind in reading and math on standardized tests--yet Satellite had the highest graduation and persistence rate, as well as a mere 10- percent dropout rate, for the two-year period covered by the study. Satellite's success means that the typical truant-dropout can, under the proper circumstances, be well served in our city's schools.

What are the proper circumstances? Our statistical findings and interviews with students--those who stayed as well as those who left--and staff suggest two over-arching factors: the school's ability to stimulate academic achievement and its ability to create a highly supportive and cohesive social environment for its students.

In each of the alternative schools, academic success--that is, obtaining credits--was very much associated with students' persisting. And, by and large, the greater the number of credits awarded to students each semester, the higher the persistence rate. There were two instructive departures from this rule. In one school, we found high achievement but relatively low persistence; in another, low achievement but relatively high persistence.

In the high-achievement/low-persistence school, students spent 90 percent of their school time in external learning internships. While they told us they "loved" the school, especially the freedom to learn through doing, they also said they felt isolated from other students.

In the low-achievement/high-persistence school, students complained that high- and low-achieving students were all in the same classes and as no special provisions were made for either group, some students were bored in class and others bewildered. Yet despite their general dissatisfaction with the curriculum, the students felt a strong loyalty to the school and each other. They ascribed this to the principal's almost single-minded preoccupation with their emotional development and the various group and individual counseling sessions he set up to help them better understand themselves and others.

Interviews and observations at Satellite Academy suggest that it combines the best of both worlds: a stimulating academic program and an intense concern for the emotional growth of its students and teachers.

One naturally asks, what are the characteristics of a school that has both an exciting curriculum and a close-knit community? In the alternative schools, we found the following common features:

  • Well-defined student populations. The schools know what their students need and program accordingly.
  • Principals who are strong academic leaders. They work with faculty to ground curricula in the reality of students' lives, intellectual needs, and school-system requirements.
  • Diversified teachers' roles. Time is allotted for increased managerial participation, for the cooperative development of curricula, and for opportunities to counsel students. Counseling enhances teachers' sensitivity to students' needs while administrative authority increases the likelihood that this understanding will result in better programming.
  • Partial course credit, fast-paced cycles, and learning contracts. All offer more opportunities for students to succeed academically.
  • Encouragement of participation. By inviting students to take part in regular classroom discussions, to make decisions regarding their courses, and to learn through doing, teachers and administrators promote more alertness and involvement.
  • Student involvement in activities critical to school goals, such as admissions policy and course evaluation.
  • Clear standards of conduct set in a few commonly agreed-upon, frequently discussed school rules. A highly structured support system enables students to live within those rules.
  • Small school size. This was the factor that most principals and teachers thought critical to their ability to reach students. A small school encourages communication and a sense of belonging and limits the bureaucratic obstacles to leadership and programming.

The need to combat potential dropout problems through smaller, more cohesive schools that integrate social supports and well-defined academic programs has been endorsed by the authors of the best of the recent national reform reports, including Ernest Boyer, John L. Goodlad, and Theodore Sizer. Given such consensus, why haven't things changed? Clearly, change requires more than some general sense of "knowing what to do." It requires freedom from unnecessary and counterproductive restraints, and it requires aggressive leadership and support.

To foster this kind of innovation, policies at the state, local, and school levels must change. Consider, for example, the convention in New York State that high schools stay in session for at least eight periods every day. When is staff development and planning to take place? Consider, too, that in New York City schools receive funding based in part on the number of academic courses offered. Given this incentive system, how often will teachers be employed in noncredit counseling sessions, attendance follow-up, or curriculum planning? These types of conventions discourage communication, retard curriculum development, and prevent staff members from knowing and helping children.

Many school systems recognize that teachers are not given enough time to reach the at-risk student. These systems may respond with occasional short-term programs and other novelties that do not affect the fundamental issue: The schools are in need of real reform, not just recalibration to a new set of performance standards. Real reform means increasing the intrinsic rewards of schooling to youngsters--that is, creating more effective and satisfyingteaching/learning relationships. The students we interviewed, including both those who chose to drop out and those who opted to stay in school, all realized the extrinsic worth of education: diploma equals job. But because many experienced no intrinsic reward, they ended up hating school and dropped out.

Reforms are very difficult to generate within any organization, but without public recognition of both the academic and the extracurricular needs of the dropout-prone population, and leadership at the top levels of policymaking, the discussion of the drop-out problem will remain just talk.

Our schools need to do more than simply raise standards for the most able and eager students. Their fundamental challenge will be to improve in a way that that will enable all students, particularly those least adaptable to the status quo, to succeed. Because alternative schools have been deliberately exempted from certain bureaucratic and curricular constraints, they offer a compelling model. We need to incorporate their strategies and emulate their commitment in the mainstream of American education.

Vol. 04, Issue 30, Page 24, 17

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