Genuine change in our school systems can’t happen until we get honest about education’s ugliest secrets. Namely, the fact that what we call “dropouts” are actually push-outs, force-outs and ignore-outs. And that most schools—and the administrators, teachers and principals that staff them—have no interest whatever in bringing them back in.
Those may be harsh words, but I don’t know how else to explain the almost bovine placidity with which our educational system greets the reality that half of our high school students are not graduating. Judging by the reactions of the educational establishment in this state, that irritating buzzing sound just means we need to change batteries in our fire detectors ... not that the whole blasted edifice is burning down.
At a recent public meeting, I was asked if I would include professional educators in the effort to produce a strong enough response to our deplorable graduation rate. I have to confess I didn’t know what to say. I hesitated.
I am not a professional educator, though I spend a lot of time working alongside them. I do know that as a group they constitute the finest, most dedicated members of our society, genuinely devoted to the profession they have chosen and intensely committed to the flowering of the young minds we have entrusted to their care.
If we view schools as gardens, where society cultivates every variety of plant that sprouts there, discovering and then bringing each to the fullness of its unique abilities, then we might see an end to the phenomenon we now label “dropping out.”
Afterward, puzzled by my hesitation, I wondered: Should educators be involved? Of course. But shouldn’t they lead the effort? I’m not so sure of that. Why aren’t they doing more to change things already?
One answer that keeps asserting itself is that when students are not doing well in class, it reflects on the teacher. When they stop coming to class, however, it reflects on the students themselves: They made the decision; they weren’t motivated; they weren’t disciplined enough. And, certainly, it is a relief not to have those troublemakers around, taking time and attention away from the committed, motivated, disciplined students. We’re better off without them.
I think at its heart, the problem with our schools graduating only half the kids who enter them is that we are operating out of the wrong model. We are thinking about the schools as the place where society builds its future members, a sort of factory where they are assembled, tested and stamped “ready.” (Although no factory that discarded half of the products on its assembly line could stay in business very long.)
If, instead, we view schools as gardens, where society cultivates every variety of plant that sprouts there, discovering and then bringing each to the fullness of its unique abilities, then we might see an end to the phenomenon we now label “dropping out.”
Here are four things our educational system could do right now (and with amazingly little additional money) to turn around our graduation rate:
• Stop suspending students. Instead, require in-school suspension, after-school tutoring and week-end remediation.
• Greatly expand vocational and trade opportunities, relying heavily on the state’s network of community colleges for concurrent enrollment while students are still in high school.
• Every elementary and middle school should have after-school programming for every student.
• We need many more charter or alternative schools for high school students who are not doing well in class or who have already dropped out. Small communities with attention given to differing learning styles—accompanied by supportive services to deal with family and community barriers to learning—have proven effective in helping kids graduate.
There are many other things that could be done. If we are serious, we will start doing them. If we are not, we’ll explain why they can’t even be attempted.