College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

‘Dropouts Happen’

By John W. Myres — October 09, 2009 5 min read

Webster defines realism as “a concern for fact or reality and the rejection of the impractical or visionary.”

For perhaps too long, we educators have denied the realities of public schools in favor of a tireless, unending quest for excellence and the success of all students. While these are certainly desirable and justifiable goals, the failure to achieve them should not result in an overwhelming sense of failure, or worse, guilt.

This is not intended to excuse ourselves from the all-important task of educating our young. Rather, it is a plea to accept some of the realities of public schools that contravene our best efforts.

The first of these realities is: There will never be enough money. While this is an obvious one, we still struggle to satisfy an endless set of needs—better or improved facilities, more and varied instructional resources, teacher salaries commensurate with responsibilities, and on and on. The reality, though, is that unless people are willing to curtail police or fire protection, new and improved roads, or social services, for instance, an inordinate amount of money will not come to public education. While this reality is important for those in public school service to grasp, it is equally important to drive it home to education visionaries, whether lawmakers or reformers, whose aspirations too often exceed their financial grasp.

The second reality is: Not everyone goes to college. Somewhere, somehow, the purpose of public education has changed from having the young learn to read, write, and compute, along with mastering other curricula, in order to prepare for effective citizenship and ready employment. It seems the current purpose is almost exclusively preparing them for college.

School districts themselves appear to have fallen prey to this fashionable way of thinking, often declaring proudly at graduation time the high percentages of their students who are going to college. Those high percentages may be flawed, however, in that they often are derived from pupils themselves who say they intend to go on to college, regardless of whether they have been accepted or have even applied. Moreover, the term “college” is now often used to include vocational institutions, not colleges in the traditional sense.

What is important is not the number of students who attend college, but the number who finish. This figure may be as low as 20 percent.

Preparation for college is and should be a worthy aim of public schools. But the pursuit of that goal should be tempered with the realization that a significant number of students may well forgo college or fail to finish it. And because of this, curricula should be much more comprehensive, including, for example, greater space for vocational and technical education.

A third reality is: Dropouts happen. Certainly, maximum effort must be made to keep young people in school. But we should not automatically assume that schools are failures because they have dropouts. There are many reasons students leave school: language and cultural barriers, economic needs, and, frankly, educational immaturity.

Schools have made some tremendous efforts to retain pupils by the creation of alternatives. One is the charter school or academy. Another is the continuation, or alternative, school, which has been greatly expanded to serve students who cannot or will not attend regular schools. Independent- or home-study programs, which are basically correspondence courses, are another option. Yet, even these alternative opportunities are still marred by noticeable numbers of dropouts.

On the positive side, the graduation rates of our high schools are still quite respectable, and many dropouts do return to school, as our adult education institutions can attest, when education becomes more important in their lives.

If schools were ignoring the problem of dropouts, there would be justifiable criticism. But they are not, and we should accept, however reluctantly, the reality of dropouts.

A fourth reality is: Reforms will always be with us. One of the refrains from the Broadway musical “Paint Your Wagon” goes like this:

“Where are we going?

I don’t know.

When will we get there?

I ain’t certain.

All I know is I’m on my way.”

And that probably expresses best the reality of what teachers and administrators feel in the face of the ceaseless parade of reforms undertaken by their schools. These have included such movements as “back to basics” and “new math”; different kinds of reading programs; extended school days and years; year-round schools; flexible and block scheduling; the No Child Left Behind Act; increased standardized testing; and more training for teachers and administrators.

School reform movements have been with us since the public schools first came into being. Most teachers and administrators will probably experience six or seven over the course of their professional lives. The result of this continuous cycle of change is that educators usually become quite immune over time—not because a reform may have no value, but because it usually means they become prey to its implementation.

It is nice to think that we, as professionals, control our school environment. Operationally, we do. In reality, outside forces do.

Educators will have little say, which probably will result in no real improvement in pupil achievement. And the new program will require large sums of money that, sooner or later, will dry up. Most importantly, educators are likely to find that the plan was naively conceived in terms of how schools do their work and are required to operate.

A fifth reality is: We don’t control our destiny. It is nice to think that we, as professionals, control our school environment. Operationally, we do. In reality, outside forces do. Money that is supplied by either states or the federal government will exert a number of conditions or controls in the education of certain students (those with disabilities, for instance). Ethnic groups may influence the school calendar or foreign-language programs. Labor has and may continue to have a voice in the number of years of schooling required. Courts make endless determinations about pupil and parent rights.

This is not to say that such influences are improper. No one serving in the public domain could do that. It is, however, to say that these influences are real.

In sum, teachers and administrators carry heavy responsibilities. They are often caught up in many issues—financial support, college enrollments, dropouts, reforms—over which they have very limited control. If they are to be successful in their primary responsibilities, they need to be relatively free from the pressures these issues bring with them.

Perhaps the oft-quoted “Serenity Prayer” offers us the best advice: We should accept the things we cannot change, change the things we can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘Dropouts Happen’


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