“Dropout Factories”

From most media coverage over the past few years, we like to think of our high schools as incubators for success.  We throw around terms like rigor and relevance.  We opine that every child should go onto to college.  We push efforts to add additional AP or IB or dual enrollment programs to our schools.  And then, researchers such as those at Johns Hopkins throw a big wake-up call at our feet, reminding us of how far we still need to go.

If you missed it, Nancy Zuckerbrod at AP has the story.  http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2007/10/30/1_in_10_schools_are_dropout_factories?mode=PF  The summary: one in 10 high schools in the United States post a graduation rate of 60 percent or less.  That’s 17 percent of all of the high schools in the United States.

For years, these school districts have underestimated the problem.  The folks at Manhattan Institute would tell us an urban school district’s graduation rate was 55 percent.  The district would self-report 87 percent.  And we’d believe the latter.  We all want to believe statistics, and given the choice want to believe those that make us feel better about ourselves.  And there is no feel-good message in half of our students failing to earn a high school diploma.

We’d like to believe this is a problem in our urban areas.  But it isn’t limited to those communities.  These factories are just as likely in rural communities.  Why?  It’s purely economics.  We’re far more likely to find these schools in poor communities.  Dropout factories may be colorblind, but they know per-capita income.  According to the Johns Hopkins researchers, Florida and South Carolina have the greatest percentage of these schools.

Those communities providing refuge to such schools have been all abuzz about their dropout factories over the past few days.  We’re quick to defend, to refute, and to deny.  Such response is natural in crisis communications, and losing nearly half your students before graduation is indeed a crisis.  But if there were ever a time calling out for vision and for strategy, it has to be now.

In her piece, Zuckerbrod points to a number of legislative proposals to help fix the problem.  A common graduation rate formula is essential, as is stronger data collection and effective disaggregation of that data.  Then what?

We need to ask WHY these students are dropping out.  Despite popular opinion, few students leave high school because it is too hard.  To the contrary, many will leave because it is too boring or irrelevant.  

Are they leaving to go to work?  If so, what “good” job is out there for a 16-year-old high school dropout?  Some say they are dropping out because of NCLB or testing.  But I’d opine that most high school students don’t even know what NCLB is.

If we can gather data on why students leave school, we can craft the messages to get them to stay in school.  Even without the data, we know that the message must be personalized, must be relevant, and must just be common sense.  What does Eduflack mean?

* We need to start early.  Focusing on high schools and careers in ninth or 10th grade is just too late.  We need to get our kids on the right paths in middle school, get them thinking about the future, and show them the opportunities that really exist.  Middle school is the time to dream … and to plan.
* We need to better link high school to career.  Why take Algebra II?  If you want to design video games or work in a hospital, you need it.  High school courses are relevant.
* We need to take an interest.  In talking with today’s high school students about dropping out, most are staying in school because their teachers know them and take an interest in their lives.  We get rid of the factory mentality when we treat students as individuals.
* Every child has opportunity.  Education is the great equalizer.  With it, any student — regardless of socioeconomic level — can succeed.  But they need that high school diploma (and likely college degree) to do so.
* We cannot accept mediocrity.  We should be appalled by with the dropout rates reported by Manhattan Institute and others.  We simply cannot afford to lose a third of our students before the end of high school (and then another sizable group between high school and college completion).

I know, I know, I’m up on my high horse again.  But sometimes, we just have to ride that stag.  Dropout factories are simply unacceptable.  Dropping out of high school is never a viable choice.  If we want to build a new, strong economy based on high skill jobs, these are just the sort of factories that need a visit from the wrecking ball.  We need schools that prepare us for the rigors, challenges and opportunities of the future, not those that keep us from participating in that future.

College for Everyone?

As we move closer to the early 2008 primaries, the presidential candidates (particularly the Democratic ones) are starting to discuss their ideas on public education.  We still have a long way to go before we truly know what the candidates will do to improve public education and boost student achievement (funding preK is a start, railing against NCLB not so much).  But education is finally a second-tier issue in discussions, debates, and policy joustings.

And John Edwards is part of the chorus.  As of late, Edwards has started floating the idea of “College for Everyone,” his plan to provide every American with one year of free college (tuition, fees, and books), in exchange for having taken a college prep curriculum in high school, holding a part-time job in college, and generally staying out of trouble in life.

It’s a wonderful start, but, to Eduflack, the message falls grossly short.  Virtually everyone agrees that postsecondary education today is necessary for success tomorrow.  It provides the skills needed for a good job.  It provides choices.  It provides opportunity.  Be it a career certificate, two-year college degree, or four-year degree, postsecondary ed is a necessary component to contribute to the 21st century economy.

Edwards knows that.  The self-made millionaire owes his a good chunk of his success to his postsecondary education.  And as he tours the country talking about Two Americas, he has to know that education is the great equalizer between the haves and the have nots.  We reduce the gap between the two Americas through education and through the notion that success can be attained by all.

Knowing that, why does Edwards limit College for Everyone to just one year?  Are the doors of opportunity opened after taking a few 101 courses?  Of course not.  The path to success is accessed, in large part, through a degree.  That diploma is a measurement of achievement.  Employers aren’t looking for workers who have taken one year of intro courses.  They want workers with college degrees. 

When one looks at the number of organizations advocating for postsecondary education for all, one of the key messages is degree attainment.  We have built a national dialogue that students must graduate from high school, and that dropping out is not an option.  Postsecondary education is no different.  Students must use their high school years to get college ready.  And once the get to college, they need to earn their degree.  The ole sheepskin is still the common measurement of academic success.

In proposing an ambitious plan to get kids to college, Edwards is simply playing the role of tease.  The incentive should be a degree, not just a chance to hang out at the cool kids table for two semesters.  Ultimately, Edwards’ goal should be to boost the number of first-generation students graduating from high school and earning a college degree.  That’s the true road to equality and opportunity.  Anything short, an we are dangling success in front of many, only to pull it back when they reach for it. 

If we truly want to open the doors of postsecondary education to all students, we should be looking at adopting models that boost access and attainment, efforts like the Georgia Hope Scholarships.  Readiness.  Attainment.  Application.  That’s how we move students from high school through postsecondary and into career.  The goal should be a college degree for all, not a course or two of college for most.

Without such a commitment, Edwards’ College for Everyone plan may only do one thing.  That part-time job requirement may be the “path” that many students follow after they drop out of college after that first-year taste.  It’ll be one of a handful of part-time jobs they hold to help pay the rent.   

How Quickly We Forget

We all remember that George H.W. Bush (the First) was supposed to an education president.  Convening an education summit at Eduflack’s alma mater, Bush brought governors, business leaders, and other influencers together to focus on how to improve American education as we headed into the 21st century.

Then there is Bush II, and his legacy of No Child Left Behind.  Like it or not, NCLB will be remembered as the federal government’s largest investment in public education to date, and praised (or demonized) for its focus on research and results-based education.

What about that president in between?  You know, that guy named Clinton.  Sure, as governor of Arkansas, he was one of the primary leaders at Bush I’s U.Va. summit.  But when we think of President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy successes, education doesn’t leap to mind.  Instead, we think of a strong economy, a balanced budget, community policing, and other such programs.

So what about President 42 and education?  Eduflack was down in Little Rock, Arkansas this week, and had to make a stop at the Clinton Presidential Library.  I’m just a sucker for presidential libraries, dating back to my father’s involvement in the development of the JFK Library in Boston.

At the Clinton Center, they’ve focused on eight or so key issues that defined the Clinton Administration … and one of those issues is education.  (In fact, the education alcove is larger than the section dedicated to the role of Vice President Al Gore in the eight-year administration.)

Clinton’s impact on education is defined broadly.  A commitment to lifetime learning.  Investments in Head Start and Healthy Start.  Goals 2000 standards.  School choice (with a big ole spotlight on a Checker Finn book).  Hiring 100,000 new teachers.  Providing 1.3 million children with a safe place after school hours.  Wiring 98 percent of our nation’s classrooms with the Internet.  Providing two years of college education to all students.  School to work.  Adult education.

I know, I know.  It reads more like a grocery list that core accomplishments.  Some are quantifiable, others can only be quantified by how many dollars were spent.  Some are narrowly defined, others broadly.  So it raises the larger question: What was the true impact of President Clinton’s education agenda?

Eduflack is treading on dangerous ground here, knowing that Eduwife worked at the U.S. Department of Education in mid-1990s and did tremendous work there, particularly in the area of parental involvement.  But we have to ask the question, why have we quickly forgotten so many of these Clinton era education initiatives?

Some of it, we just take for granted.  Of course our classrooms are wired.  We forget that when Clinton took office in 1993, there were only 170 total Web sites on the planet.  Today, some of us will visit 170 sites in the course of a work day.

Some just didn’t leave an impact.  We may have hired 100,000 new teachers during the Clinton years, but we still bemoan the great teacher shortages in our schools.  We may have sought to provide two years of college education to all high school graduates, but college costs continue to skyrocket and college readiness and college attainment numbers have flatlined.  If everyone got those two years, would the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have to make the investments it is making to get kids through high school and into postsecondary education?

And some we just don’t appreciate.  Clinton supported school choice, and did so at a time when the teachers unions (those folks who helped him get elected in the first place) were strongly opposed to any change from the status quo.  We take school choice and charters for granted now, but that was a major step for Clinton to take at the time.  And it paved the way for W’s voucher program and the expansion of school choice under NCLB.

But Goals 2000 is perhaps the most interesting, and most neglected, piece of the Clinton education portfolio.  When he left office, 49 states had bought into Goals 2000.  The program stood as a real, concrete first step toward national education standards.  What had long been a third rail in education policy had been doggedly pursued by Richard Riley, Mike Cohen, and others, with tangible successes.  Without it, who knows if we would even be talking about a national standard for Algebra II (as Achieve has put in place) or comprehensive standards as discussed by NGA, CCSSO, and others.

Ultimately, though, the easiest answer to why so much has been forgotten is impact.  As we look at the Clinton agenda, we lose track of many of these initiatives because they seem to place process over results.  Yes, the issues and the dollars behind them are impressive.  But how has it improved student achievement?  How did it boost teacher quality?  How did it truly impact K-12 classrooms in schools across the nation?

Instead of answering these questions, we simply moved on.  We set aside Goals 2000 and Clinton-era school choice and such so we could focus on NCLB, Reading First, and HQT.  Out with the old, in with the new.  Instead of building on successes and momentum, the Clinton/Riley agenda was put in storage, waiting to be rediscovered by historians in the decades to come.
Not every president is going to be an education president.  And not every president should be.  The needs and focus of the nation change from administration to administration.  But if we are going to urge our schools to direct their attentions to long-term improvements and longitudinal evaluations, maybe we should consider the same in our federal policies.  No, we shouldn’t accept previous efforts blindly, without questioning them or looking for ways to improve them.  But with changes in administration — whether it be at the school, district, state, or federal level — shouldn’t we build on the forward progress and financial investments of our predecessors? 

How Safe Is My School?

For decades now, we’ve talked about school security.  Metal detectors have become the norm in many urban schools, and we talk about arming teachers in rural and suburban schools to confront some of the school violence we’ve seen over the last decade.  All the talk sends a core message — can our children learn if they aren’t safe?

Two decades ago, the movie Lean on Me told the real-life story of Joe Clark and his crusade to save a New Jersey high school about to implode.  For those who don’t remember the Morgan Freeman movie, Clark almost lost his job after chaining the school doors to keep the drug dealers out, and was only saved when his test scores showed he had improved student performance where all hope was lost.

That was the 1980s.  Clearly, we’ve learned a thing or two since then.  Right?

Imagine Eduflack’s surprise, then, when it was reported in most Washington, DC media outlets this morning that DCPS was finally eliminating the chains on some of its high school doors, replacing them with honest-to-goodness state-of-the-art security doors?

Did we learn nothing from Lean on Me?  Are we honestly saying that for all of the talk the past decade about improving DC’s schools and the increased concern for student safety, that no one thought that padlocks and rusted chains weren’t a priority issue that demanded attention?

Sure, there is scant evidence that a safe school directly results in increased student achievement.  But it is common sense that an unsafe school doesn’t provide the learning environment kids need to succeed.

I Know, I Know

For a blog about effective communication, Eduflack has really dropped the ball.  The call of the professional life — you know, the one that delivers the paycheck — has had me on the road and up to my reddish goatee in high school reform and STEM initiatives these past two weeks.  And the result can be found on the empty pages of this blog over that time.

Rest assured, Eduflack is back online.  Despite the travel and the work demands, I’m making the early New Years resolution to ensure that I’m getting at least three posts a week up, starting this week.  So if you see me slacking, please rap my knuckles with the electronic ruler to get me back on track.

Multiple Pathways for Students … and Teachers

We all like to believe that we’re all entitled to one week in the sun.  No one can dispute that last week was just such a week for Teach For America.  Bookended by articles in The New York Times magazine and the Economist, TFA has been the “it” program of the week.  No small feat, what with continued discussions of NCLB, merit pay, and a host of national policy shifts.

Without doubt, TFA has a growing cadre of supporters throughout the nation.  As it has expanded the cities and communities in which it serves, the organization has had a demonstrable impact on the school culture, on student and teacher motivation, and, yes, on student performance.  Don’t believe Eduflack?  Check out the comprehensive research study Mathematica has done on the effectiveness of TFA.

Unfortunately, such attention and growth also gives birth to a healthy opposition.  I’ve long told reform clients that if you don’t have such critics, you aren’t doing your job.  Changing the status quo, calling on stakeholders to work harder or think smarter or do better invariably always brings forward that opposition.  And TFA is no exception.

For years, those critics have been led by Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, perhaps the greatest defender of the status quo pedagogy of teacher education.  Yes, she is a name to be reckoned with.  Yes, she brings a distinguished history of good work and a commitment to public education.  But sometimes, even the best take a wrong turn.

The status quoers have tried to protect teacher education for decades.  The result?  Our students’ test scores have been relatively flat for most of Eduflack’s lifetime.  We may claim that our schools of education are churning out the best educators ever to face a classroom, but the results don’t reflect that.  For too long, we’ve allowed pedagogy to substitute for results.  Sure, the inputs may be great, but what out the final outcomes?  To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, are our students better of now than they were two decades ago?

The simple answer is, of course not.  Today, we are asking far more of our students than ever before.  Success in 2007 requires a high school diploma and a postsecondary degree or certificate.  The time when only a third of high school students went to college is over.  Instead, we are demanding multiple educational pathways for our students, pathways that provide every student with a way to postsecondary education and a guide to life success. 

Which takes us back to Teach For America.  If we are expected to build multiple instructional pathways for our students, it only goes to reason that we are to build multiple instructional pathways for our teachers as well.  There is no one way to train a teacher.  If there was, we’d build that factory and have a non-stop supply of highly qualified, effective teachers for every classroom, including those in low-performing areas.

No, the challenges of our schools requires multiple ways of thinking.  From looking at those schools where programs like Teach For America or Troops to Teachers reside, we know that pedagogy is the least of these classrooms’ problems.  Here, many students have all but given up hope.  They’ve lost faith in the school, or in the teacher, or in learning itself.  For them, it isn’t about instructional approaches.  It is about repairing the school culture.  Returning hope.  Connecting the student with the teacher and the school.

And that’s where programs like TFA excel.  Success is not measured by an individual teacher or a specific cadre of corps members.  Success, in the long run, comes from knowing there will always been a TFA teacher in front of that classroom, a teacher who connects with the student, inspires the student, and reconnects the student’s passion for learning.

Accomplish that, and the student achievement will come.  And scientific research can prove it.  If anything, Darling-Hammond and her defenders of the status quo should be seeking out more opportunities and efforts like TFA.  More programs that bring hope to inner-city schools.  More programs that instill a culture of learning.  More programs that provide our schools with enthusiastic, driven instructors eager to lead a classroom that has long been neglected.  More programs that build a future generation of leadership on the notion that no issue is more important to the success of our nation and our community than a high-quality, effective education for ALL students.

Some critics, including those at dear ole Stanford, would point to the lifespan of a TFA teacher, questioning whether two years in the classroom really makes a difference.  But how different is the two-year commitment of a TFA teacher from the short lifespan of today’s traditional new teacher?  TFA’s mission was never to focus on teacher retention issues — it was to provide an ongoing stream of qualified, enthusiastic, committed educators in the communities that need them the most.  TFA plays that specific role extremely well, so much so that it is continually embraced by superintendents, principals, and teachers across the nation.  And in reality, the studies of TFA alumni show many of them stay in the classroom, go into school administration, or assume other roles that support education and growth in the community.  And isn’t that a measure of an effective educator?

In a nation looking for K-12 solutions, we need multiple answers.  One just won’t do.  And Teach For America is definitely one of the answers.  Ask a “traditional” teacher who works with a TFAer, and they’ll tell you the same thing.  Ask a family whose child is in a TFA classroom, and they’ll concur.  Ask Mathematica and other researchers, and they’ll give you the proof points.

Teacher For America and its leaders should enjoy their week in the sun.  The hard work begins today.  Across the nation, districts and schools know TFA and programs like it work.  So as the critics circle, TFA, its leadership, and its corps members need to ensure the highest quality implementation, instruction, and effect.  Success is the best defense of the critics and the status quoers.  And TFA is on its way.

Putting Our Money on a Winning Proposition

In education, the focus is often on people first, results second, and the money third.  We think of the teachers and the students, then on achievement, and only then do we really start talking about dollars.  We talk of per student costs, and compare our per-pupil spending with similar districts or with those who are outperforming us.  The punchline, inevitably, is that we need more dollars for our classrooms.

Eduflack was taken by the discussion of two pricetags this Sunday morning, one depicting the worst of times, the other the possible best of the future.  The first was a preview of Ted Koppel’s program this evening on California’s prison system.  By his numbers, it is now $43,200 per year to send a student to Harvard University.  It costs the State of California $43,000 per year to incarcerate an individual (and that person gets $200 upon leaving prison to get their lives started).  

We can leave it to the economists and statisticians to tell us the long-term community effect of moving a quarter of those individuals from prison into a two- or four-year postsecondary institution.  The effect of seeing there are opportunities that come from schoolhouse doors, rather than leading to prison doors.  It’s an age-old fight, but it is one that still remains important, particularly as we now see that postsecondary education is a necessary piece to a successful life.

As disheartening as the Koppel numbers are, education reformers around the nation should take note of the second pricetag, featured in a column written in today’s Washington Post by Marc Fisher.  (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/06/AR2007100601111.html?hpid=topnews)  We’ve all talked the talk on student preparedness for postsecondary education.  We’ve recited the numbers on remediation and how the majority of today’s high school grads simply lack the skills to succeed in college.  Now we have a response.  

In his piece, Fisher throws a spotlight on an important initiative happening on the campus of the University of the District of Columbia.  At UDC, professors saw a 50-percent dropout rate in organic chemistry courses.  And for those who stuck in the class, nearly a third received Fs.  All of this in a course required of those students seeking a career in medicine.

On top of that, 80 percent of UDC students were taking remedial math classes.  Makes it so one is ready to just give up on trying to encourage UDC’s students — many low-income or minority or first-generation college-goers — to prepare for college, attend college, stay in college, and graduate with the ability to earn jobs in demanding fields like medicine, engineering, math, and such.

UDC’s solution?  A summer program designed to provide college readiness to UDC’s incoming freshmen and fill the instructional gaps left by DCPS (since that’s where many of UDC’s students come from).  By UDC’s count, the program is reaping major rewards.  And the cost?  About $2,000 per student.

Currently, the UDC program is only serving a small number of students, working from grant money from The Washington Post Co. and the federal government.  But the early indications are positive, with unexpected consequences.  The math intervention effort is not only boosting math ability, but it has raised reading scores for those students 10 percent.

Sure, it’s a pilot.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea.  As we look at the best ways to spend our education dollars, as we look at ways to increase college readiness and college going in underserved communities, maybe, just maybe, UDC is on to something.  At the very least, they’ve demonstrated it doesn’t take the largest check to generate measurable results.  Our K-12 schools and the defenders of the status quo could learn a lot from that.