Genuine change in our school systems can’t happen until we get honest about education’s ugliest secret: “Dropouts” are actually push-outs, force outs and most teachers and principals have no interest bringing them back in.
That was, more or less, the way I started a recent opinion column ["The Dropout Factor," July 30-Aug. 5] on the truly astounding numbers of New Mexico high school students who will not graduate in four years, if ever. That column elicited some of the angriest responses I’ve ever received about any piece I’ve written, almost all from teachers who felt I was being unfair.
Some contented themselves with simply dismissing my views for revealing a perspective so completely antagonistic to the teaching profession as to be beyond redemption, let alone engaging in dialogue.
Others went to great lengths to explain that the situation isn’t as bad as the numbers might make it appear. Many students, they pointed out, are not included in the 52 percent who graduate on time, since they will actually finish in just one or two more semesters. They, too, should be considered as educational success stories. I agree.
I would also consider (though some teachers don’t) that additional number who will take and pass the GED test as educational successes. They can go on to college or vocational school, enter the military, enter apprenticeship programs, do essentially everything a graduate can do.
And it is probably true that some other “non-graduates” actually could turn out to have graduated from other school systems, though their paperwork never got back to APS.
So I’m willing to cut the official, genuinely scandalous 48 percent statistic for dropouts from our schools in half. Let’s concede the number in this problem category is just 24 percent, the way many teachers who contacted me insisted it should be understood. But even that’s still awful, still ought to provoke outrage.
(I should also note that only students who show up for their freshman year are included in this data and that many middle school students drop out before ever getting to high school. It's an invisible, uncounted youth population who simply vanish statistically, but don’t vanish from our streets, courtrooms, jails or welfare rolls.)
However, there were many teachers who wanted to tell me their stories, who sincerely wanted to help me understand the reality of life in public school classrooms today. I sat down with a few over coffee, read others’ e-mails and got a better understanding of their problems and their ideas for how schools might be improved.
One has 33 special education students in her high school math class—way, way more than the funding formula stipulates. Yet when she asked her principal to move some or to get her an educational assistant to lower the ratio within manageable limits, she was told to wait a few weeks. The administrator was certain enough students would soon stop coming to bring the class size down ... a classic self-fulfilling prophecy.
That same teacher mentioned that at her high school there are seven principals. Not counting the official, in-charge principal, the school has two freshman principals, one sophomore, one junior, one senior, one for special ed and one for extracurricular activities! Those seven “principals” could be replaced with five counselors and five teachers to better effect, she thought.
When a school carries that heavy of an administrative, non-teaching burden on its budget, it becomes clearer why class sizes are allowed to exceed norms and why educational assistants still haven’t received the minimal raises they need to make a living wage.
I asked about suggestions for how to engage more students—and how to keep them engaged. Some made good sense: Multiple methods for “credit recovery” and tutoring were often suggested. Moving the starting hour for classes to 10 a.m. and extending the closing into the early evening hours seems like a simple change that takes advantage of how and when adolescent biorhythms actually work best.
One teacher emphasized how hard it is under current scheduling practices for her to get to know her students personally. They are with her for a single 90-minute period and then are gone until the next day. This setup makes it unlikely that she will be able to provide them with the kind of emotional support she would like to provide, and it increases the chances that no one will notice if the student stops attending.
Most also mentioned the need for expanding the range of vocational courses, and most were critical of the “high school restructuring” mandated by the governor and legislature a couple of years ago intended to upgrade the state’s graduation requirements, with more math in particular. They think it contributes significantly to the increase in dropout numbers and has accomplished little other than to discourage marginal students.
From these conversations, I have realized that I can’t expect teachers to lead the overhaul of education or even to dream up genuine reforms. They are too completely absorbed in the daily struggle for classroom survival to be able to launch a crusade for change; too caught up in negotiating the existing maze to be able to pull it down and build another.
This is a task for which all of us have to take full responsibility: parents, political officials, students, business and civic leaders, and, yes, teachers, too. But we can’t wait around any longer. And we shouldn’t rule out trying anything with promise, no matter how drastic.