Mr. President: Be bold on dropouts
The intent of President Obama's offer of $900 million to boost dropout prevention is good. This is our most difficult educational problem. The approach he is taking is less good. The money is likely to go into many programs that say they want to help kids stay in school, but employ methods that have not worked well and are unlikely to get much better with repetition.
On average about 30 percent of high school students fail to graduate in four years. In low income neighbors that number swells to 50 percent. I have been studying the research and talking to teachers and students about this for a couple of decades, and concluded the group of young people who don't finish in time break into two distinct groups: those motivated to seek better lives who see that their high schools aren't helping them do that and those who haven't thought much about the rest of their lives but know they cannot stand sitting in classrooms all day.
Educators have made some progress in reducing dropout rates for that first group by making high school more challenging so that students see that staying will increase their chances of getting to college or a good trade school or job when they graduate. Educators have also made some progress with the second group by helping them develop relationships with adults at the school that they find interesting and entertaining, and replacing a lot of dull classroom learning with projects and internships.
The people taking both of those approaches could make good use of the money, but the president says it is going to go to about 5,000 schools. That strikes me as too many, at least at this stage when we need to figure out what works and what doesn't. Most of those 5,000 schools are going to talk a good game, but will present as challenging programs that water down college standards and offer as personally involving programs that lack the staffing and intelligence to win kids over. Failures in the dropout field far outnumber successes, which means a lot of bad programs are going to get paid.
A few high schools have pretty good records on keeping kids in school. They should get the money and everyone else should work hard on emulating their methods and building a track record before they share in the same largess. This is an area that needs far more creativity than has been shown so far.
But as usually happens with these federal hand outs, every city and state is going to insist on its share. The politics of education funding will dissipate the good the president wants to do.
| March 1, 2010; 11:55 AM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Obama $900 million for dropout prevention, Obama anti-dropout plan, why students leave school
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