College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

A Dropout’s Guide to Education Reform

By J. William Towne — October 19, 2009 3 min read

It’s a telling commentary about education reform that just about everyone has been given a forum to talk about ways to address the country’s appalling dropout rate except the dropouts themselves. I say this unabashedly, because I was an urban high school dropout myself. And after much research on the subject, I can tell you firsthand why it happens and how to fix it.

Charter schools, vouchers, smaller class sizes, and standardized testing are definitely not the answer, as they will not make real, systemic change. Until reformers start listening to the students who have dropped out or are currently failing, their attempts to reform schools also will fail.

The first thing to understand is that many students feel school simply does not matter. I, like most of my classmates, thought I would one day become a sports or entertainment star—and you don’t need to know algebra to shoot three-pointers or rap. Once educators understand this fundamental concept—that we don’t care about school—they can attempt to fix it.

Until reformers start listening to the students who have dropped out or are currently failing, their attempts to reform schools also will fail.

Here are the two major reasons inner-city high school students drop out: They don’t see the need for school in relation to their current dreams and goals, and it’s simply too boring. The good news is that there really is a “silver bullet” fix here. And until it is implemented in urban schools, there won’t be much success at reducing dropout rates. What is it? Simple. Teacher reform.

After analyzing my own grade school failures and speaking with dozens of recent dropouts, it’s clear to me that teachers’ effectiveness is the silver bullet. While programs like the No Child Left Behind Act choose to focus on the need for “highly qualified” teachers, the real emphasis should be on creating highly effective teachers. I would much rather have an exciting first-year teacher than a 20-year veteran who may have three degrees but is a dud.

Here’s a news flash for such teacher duds: Lecture is dead. It’s boring and ineffective. Stop doing it. Instead, find ways to make the lessons fun, engaging, and, most important, relevant to students’ lives. Teacher reform will lead to student success, irrespective of subject matter.

Making the lesson fun makes us want to come to class. We want to know what cool new thing will happen today. What will the teacher do next? We have to be there to find out. The last thing we want is to skip class and hear the next day how much fun it was. “You guys did what? I can’t believe I missed it!” Not a typical response from students, unless of course they have highly effective teachers.

Making the class engaging is just as important. Teachers need to get students involved and solicit their input on everything from creating rules to grading. Break classes into groups. Since the grade of the entire group will be dependent on each student’s progress, they are more likely to care. Students’ peers have a greater influence on them than almost anyone else. But remember to keep the lesson entertaining. Perhaps turn it into a game show. There are many ways to make classes engaging and fun, limited only by the teacher’s imagination. No imagination? Ask the students for ideas.

Even more important is that teachers make the lesson relevant to their students’ lives. Want to teach them how to read better? Forget Shakespeare for now. Instead, have them read material they can relate to. And not the same thing for all of them. Give them choices. Mike only cares about football? Fine, have him read the Sports Illustrated cover article. Michelle only cares about a rapping career? Great, have her read Russell Simmons’ autobiography. Students are individuals, not clones. There is no “one size fits all” in education.

Many education “experts” talk about how there is no silver bullet for school reform. Some say that there is no chance of real reform until major changes are made at the socioeconomic level. I disagree. Even with an imperfect society, vast improvements can be made in education. While socioeconomic approaches, such as reducing poverty, ensuring the proper financing of schools, and increasing parental involvement, do have a place, their impact is minor compared with what happens in the classroom all day, every day.

Poverty and its effects are here to stay. But there is definitely a quicker fix in school reform: Create a systemwide network of highly effective teachers. It’s that simple. Maybe it just takes a high school dropout to see it.

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as A Dropout’s Guide to Education Reform


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