Federal Opinion

Let’s Get Real About the Dropout Crisis

By William Berkson — June 11, 2009 5 min read
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The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker observed many years ago that politicians are often solemn without being serious—solemn in their pronouncements, but not serious about solving the problems. In education policy, there’s an additional wrinkle: Politicians’ pronouncements are regularly full of grandiose ambitions. The message is, if you don’t shoot for the moon you’re defeatist and shortchanging children.

I’m all for aiming high for the long term, but if a program doesn’t have realistic short- and medium-term goals, what results is failure. We’ve had a hundred years of grandiose pronouncements, and still have a 30 percent high school dropout rate. It’s time for a change, for programs that don’t promise the moon, but that do work.

With more-focused and realistic goals, we could succeed in turning around the biggest school problems, and not in the dim and distant future.”

The biggest piece of unreality in education is the one-size-fits-all idea about the goals of secondary education. According to this implicit and sometimes explicit idea, we should have one standard for high school graduation: All students should be college-ready. The reality is that no country has been able to meet this standard. And we don’t know how to meet it either.

Bill and Melinda Gates, in an interview with public television’s Charlie Rose, bought in to this widely accepted goal. And then they spoke almost despairingly of the difficulty of meeting the goal. It would take, they said, a huge upgrade in the skills of teachers around the country to accomplish this, a massive personnel problem. They are right about what it would take, but wrong about the goal itself. With more-focused and realistic goals, we could succeed in turning around the biggest school problems, and not in the dim and distant future.

The reality about sorting or tracking is that it is cruel and counterproductive to sort children at too young an age. We now sort too much in the first three grades, when lagging children can, with intensive instructional effort, often catch up and stay up academically, and for life. But it is equally true that at age 15 some students are ready and eager to take college-level courses—Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses—while other students have trouble making change and understanding a newspaper.

So shall we tell those students who can’t make change or read a newspaper that now they are going to read Shakespeare and solve physics problems? Research has shown that such students do not actually learn more when they stay in high school another two years. They cannot follow the lessons, and so they are bored, and more importantly, humiliated by their inabilities. So they are going to walk out of school, whatever the latest pronouncement on high standards is.

And when they walk out, the labor market will not take them seriously for a career-track job until they are 22 or 23 years old. In the meanwhile, they create huge social problems, filling the prisons and parenting children they lack the finances or capacity to raise to thrive in our complex society.

The irony is that focused solutions can work, if we get serious about solving the dropout problem.

It is first of all a problem of “winning the hearts and minds.” And there is a critical weakness in our current system for motivating these students: the lack of a credible link between school and work for the student who is not bound for college graduation. To be motivated, students with weak academic skills need to see programs of studies they can believe they will actually complete, and that will lead them to a respected place in adult society. When such credible programs are in place, then these students will be motivated, will stick with their studies, complete them, and be much better off in life.

The first step to such credible programs is to develop a Core Skills Standard, a standard for academic skills in language and mathematics that would indicate whether a person had the capabilities necessary for a career-track job in our economy. This standard would not be something the government or anyone else created and imposed. Rather, it would be government’s job to ascertain what the realities of the labor market are. To do this, the federal government could create a commission of “consumers” of postsecondary student talent—leaders from business, the military, community colleges, and other areas—and have that body determine the actual academic-skill level needed for career-track jobs. Once this was done, the commission could certify exams—either existing or new ones—as validly testing for this core standard.

With the core-skills standard in place as a linchpin connecting the worlds of school and work, we could build an effective school-to-work program. Exams could be given at age 15 to test for achievement of the standard. Those who were not able to pass it—and the college-bound would do it pretty easily—would have as a central goal of their further education bringing themselves up to speed on the missing skills. They would be able to retake the exams until they could pass the core-skills standard.

This further education would include time in workplace and apprenticeship programs. Building successful apprenticeships would be a big undertaking, involving business, and training and rewarding mentors in the business world. But it is a realistic goal, as it has already been done in countries such as Germany.

Such a program could have a unique motivational power. First of all, students would be able to see what the real world actually demands, and the benefit of better academic skills for advancement in the world of work. Let’s give them the opportunity to see reality sooner, in a protected and guided environment. Second, since mentor relationships, like coaching relationships, are more personal, they have a power to inspire that is difficult to achieve in the classroom alone. In effect, a good apprenticeship program would expand the teacher corps by hundreds of thousands.

The Core Skills Standard, it is important to note, could also be a powerful motivation before the age of 15. Every child, parent, and teacher would know that it represented a real standard, not an artificial one. And teachers would be able to tell young children honestly: “If you master the next step in this material, you are on your way to a respected place in society when you grow up. And I can help you. I’ve done it for others like you, and I can help you, too.”

Furthermore, such a standard would not hold anyone back from aiming for more academically demanding professions. And we already have standards in place for these: the SAT and ACT college-entrance tests, the AP and IB programs, and course standards set by universities. For these high fliers, there is no need for new standards, even though there is a need for specialized programs to help them, as well.

The core-skills standard, joined to a strengthened school-to-work program, would convince students who might drop out that they could succeed in their studies. It would give them respect, dignity, and hope, and so could successfully motivate them to complete their studies.

But making this a reality requires giving up “one size fits all.” What do we prize more, grandiose talk, or success for students with diverse talents and interests?

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A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as Let’s Get Real About the Dropout Crisis


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