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School & District Management Opinion

Flawed Fixes

By Ronald A. Wolk — April 14, 2006 3 min read
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Graduation rates are slowly but steadily declining.

In February 2005, the nation’s governors met to tackle what is arguably the most serious educational problem we face as a nation: the enormous gap between high school preparation and the demands of college and work (which are pretty much the same these days).

In committing themselves to close the gap, the governors accepted a challenge so daunting that even Hercules might have shied away. A third of the students who enter 9th grade drop out before graduation. Another third graduate and enter the work force. And the remaining third graduate and go on to college, but only half of those earn a diploma within six years. Put another way, 18 out of every 100 9th graders get a college degree.

The governors’ strategy for solving this problem is to raise academic standards and align them with college and the workplace; make graduation requirements more “rigorous”; better prepare teachers; redesign high schools; and hold educational institutions accountable for improved performance.

States have been pursuing this strategy for more than 15 years with very little success. In fact, graduation rates are slowly but steadily declining. This approach hasn’t worked because it doesn’t directly address the three main reasons that kids fail and fall behind.

First, they’re underprepared. More than half of 9th graders have not acquired the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in traditional high school courses. About 70 percent don’t read proficiently, so they fall behind academically. Minority students, poor students, and those from homes in which English is not the first language have the most difficulty. A study by ACT found that half of the students graduating from high school cannot read well enough to meet the demands of college or the workplace. And a recent federal study found that only 31 percent of graduating college students can read a complex book and extrapolate from it.

Second, they have serious personal problems. Many adolescents have a turbulent home life or live in rough neighborhoods where gang influence is strong and school is not valued. Some have to work full time to help support their families.

And, third, they feel disconnected from school. Students most commonly describe their school experience as “boring,” and say their courses are irrelevant. Unmotivated, many do as little as necessary to get by.

How does the governors’ reform agenda solve these problems? Raising standards and requirements might jolt some unmotivated students to work harder, but it won’t reduce the number of dropouts or help kids struggling with out-of-school problems. For those who enter 9th grade lacking the necessary skills, raising the bar seems like cruel and unusual punishment. If aligning standards with the academic requirements of college and the workplace is only about “more rigorous” courses and content and not about real-world skills and growth, then students are likely to see school as even more standardized and irrelevant.

Improving teaching has been a reform priority since the mid-1980s, but it remains more a hope than a reality. Redesigning high schools could have a significant positive effect by giving kids smaller schools and classes, personalized education, closer relationships with teachers, and more real-world learning. But most redesign has been about moving the furniture and painting the hallways different colors for different academies.

Today’s adolescents are raised in a digital society and constantly bombarded by information and pop culture entertainment. It is unrealistic to expect them to sit through five or six courses a day hearing about the Thirty Years’ War or the principal products of Peru from teachers who are as bored as they are.

The governors’ strategy won’t succeed if we continue to treat education as a mass production industry. Schools need to educate one student at a time, beginning in kindergarten, and address kids’ particular needs, talents, and problems in settings of human scale and in personal relationships.

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