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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.

By Jay Mathews  | 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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I like your idea about the high schools that already do a good job with the drop out rate. Everybody could learn from them.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 1, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Where is this money going to come from? Out of the Porkulus bill or is this going to lead to more borrowing and debt? How can we keep spending money we do not have, regardless of the worthiness or not of any program?

We cannot continue to print money, borrow and spend our Nation's future.

Posted by: Bubbette1 | March 1, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Oh, please. Kids who drop out of high school need more challenges? That's just ludicrous. Kids who drop out of high school do not need more academic challenges. They either have no skills at all or they have average to poor skills but could care less about school and spend their time disrupting class.

The dropout rate is not about bright kids who just don't think school has anything to offer them. It's also not about convincing kids that school has something to offer them. Dropouts are kids who either can't do the work or can't see (despite tons of evidence) that their lives are going to be terrible without a high school degree. The first group needs an education plan that realizes their limited abilities and stops shovelling them into AP courses or other college track courses when they can't add. The second group are almost always disruptive kids who suck up far too many educational resources already. They do not need more money. They will realize their mistake later; until then, let them leave school with a test showing that they aren't in group one.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 1, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

I took "challenging" here to mean, not watered down and interesting, so that the unmotivated kids got interested in learning, not necessarily just harder without any help.

I do agree with you that there needs to something done about disruptive kids beyond blaming teachers for not being "engaging enough." That is how schools today are operating and it is extremely naive and demoralizing to teachers.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 1, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

celenstun100 read the piece exactly as I meant it. got any data to back up yr point Cal?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 1, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

I don't know if your approach is right, Jay, but I'm pretty sure Obama's is wrong. He's just throwing money at schools, disregarding academic research, empirical data and common sense.

It makes me sick.

Posted by: efavorite | March 1, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Hunt in this haystack of this 2004 data from Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity, “Social/Economic Indicators by Race: Disparity 1954 and Today” and try to find the real crisis:

- Since 1957, the proportion of the African American population with a high school degree has increased by 300% (18.4% to 79.2%) and the proportion of the African American population with a 4-year college degree increased by almost 500% (2.9% to 17.2%).
- High School dropout rates for African Americans have decreased substantially in the last thirty years, dropping from 33.5% in 1974 to 17% in 2002.
- College enrollment rates have increased from 36% in 1960 to 57.7% in 2002 for African Americans (an increase of 66%). College enrollment rates for Whites increased by 45% during this forty-four year time period.
- African American child poverty rates were approximately double the rate of white child poverty in the 1990’s.
- African American unemployment has been approximately twice as high as white unemployment, at least since the 1950s.
- The number of incarcerated African Americans has increased 800% since the 1950s, the number of incarcerated African Americans surpassed the number of Whites incarcerated in the late 1980s.

Got that last one in your head?

From my interpretation of this data, the educational attainment for African Americans has substantially increased overr the past 50+ years. However, this has not let to a decrease in the employment disparity.

This so-called crisis is a red herring to deflect us from other facts.

Posted by: pondoora | March 1, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

Jay, your informal research is about as valuable as nonsense. Your two categories 1.) those motivated to seek better lives who see that their high schools aren't helping them do that, and 2.) those who haven't thought much about the rest of their lives but know they cannot stand sitting in classrooms all day -- are a bunch of baloney.

For my money, I'd go with the results of a truancy survey conducted after a dropout prevention summit last fall which was sponsored by America's Promise in my hometown. It was conducted by Oakland's student members of the All City Council and, if you'd care to pay attention, the findings will present you with the real meat.

With truancy being the precursor to dropping out, the All City Council students asked other students at our nine high schools with the highest truancy rates if they had ever cut school and why. The main reasons given were:

1. home/life problems
2. anger and depression
3. use, or selling, of drugs or alcohol
4. family responsibilities
5. need to work and make money
6. fell behind at school and felt like he/she couldn't make up
7. unable to see how the work will help in life and didn't feel as if anyone cared

The first five relate to mental health/substance abuse issues and severe financial problems at home. From my close-up view as a longtime, active parent at one of these high schools, I can verify that the findings are correct.

Only the last two reasons given are remotely related to possible deficiencies on the part of the school. Only two out of seven, Jay.

What went wrong in your childhood and life to make you enjoy playing the blame-it-all-on-the-teachers-and-schools blame game so much?

Posted by: pondoora | March 1, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse

Pondoora is correct; I should have mentioned the external issues (substance abuse/mental health, etc). The last two are exactly what I was referring to--weak skills and an inability to see school's value, despite massive information dumps to the contrary.

Here's another cite from the NY Times:

"Most -- 67 percent -- of the dropouts in the class of 2000 never advanced beyond 9th or 10th grade, even though most stayed in school for four years. It is unlikely that they passed the course work needed to take Regents exams. An additional 16 percent dropped out of equivalency degree programs, a watered-down program in which Regents exams are not normally given.

Instead, they blame impersonal schools; poor preparation in earlier grades and dumbed-down instruction in high school; classes so big it is almost impossible to get individual attention; and the humiliation of repeating classes and being surrounded by much younger students.

Many also fault themselves, saying their schoolwork has been derailed by family conflict, drug addiction, pregnancy or a job."

Any kid that doesn't understand the value that school has in life, despite its tedium and lack of connection to their own priorities, is ignoring a metric ton of reality. They are choosing to ignore it. And society is supposed to spend more money on these kids, when they are already costing a lot? Why not spend more money on the kids who want to be in school, rather than spend tons more money on the offchance that we can persuade really stubborn kids to reconsider?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 1, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Jay. Investing in proven approaches while carefully experimenting with new ones makes eminently good sense. Unfortunately, it is not sufficiently bold or urgent for Barack and Arne. In education, we have lots of time to do things wrong, but no time to figure out how to do them right.

Obama's approach is worse than a waste. It is a disaster in the making. He has painted a target on the back of every principal working in a high-poverty school. It's hard enough now to find talented people to fill those positions. Who in his right mind would attempt it now?

Posted by: dz159 | March 1, 2010 11:02 PM | Report abuse

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