Dropping Out in the Windy City

Just how bad is the drop-out problem in the United States?  For years, we have heard the Manhattan Institute talk about urban drop-out rates of 30 percent, 40 percent, and even 50 percent.  At the same time, many superintendents would counter with rates a fraction of that, citing circumstances that Manhattan wasn’t accounting for.  Last week, Eduflack heard a tale (still to be verified) that until very recently one state was calculating their graduation rate based on the number of 12th graders who managed to graduate that year.  As to be expected, they had a pretty good grad rate.

Today, the CPS Graduation Pathways Strategy is to be released in Chicago.  Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the report cites recent Chicago drop-out rates of nearly 50 percent.  The most recent data shows a dropout rate of 44 percent.  The full story is here in today’s Chicago Tribune — http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-dropout_25feb25,0,1248671.story.  Thanks to www.educationnews.org for flagging it.

Why is this study so important?  We all know our large, urban school districts have long had a drop-out problem.  Heck, it was only a few months ago that many of their schools were dubbed drop-out factories.  While such rates are indeed alarming, they have long been part of the drumbeat of the need for reform.  We know kids aren’t graduating from high school, and we’ve known it for decades.

No, the important issue here is that Chicago is standing behind some very ugly numbers.  They recognize that the first step to improvement is strong data collection and strong data analysis.  Working with BMGF, they now know the true scope and size of the problem.  They aren’t trying to hide the numbers.  They aren’t trying to develop an alternative approach to convert that 44 percent to 32 percent or 26 percent.  They are laying out the cold hard facts, using them as a launching pad for substantive, meaningful reforms.

It isn’t often that we see a large school district go naked like that by choice.  Data is often a closely held secret, and one might need dual degrees in statistics and computer science to dig out meaningful information from a district website or  state education database.  This study, though, seems to lay out a frank and open discussion of seven years worth of graduation data for the Windy City.  And it serves as a model for other urban districts who recognize the drop-out crisis is a major education and economic issue.

As communication goes, CPS deserves a gold star here.  If the goal is school improvement, one needs to generate a genuine demand for change.  You need to demonstrate that is a significant problem, we know what that problem is, and we have the people and resources to fix it.  And that’s just what Chicago is doing this week (and hopefully well beyond).  They’ve identified the problem, and a 44 percent drop-out rate is definitely a problem, and acknowledge the softer spots such as male drop-outs and a high school population that is older than the norm.  They’ve assembled a team of educators, representing the central office and the high schools, to get to work.  They’ve partnered with BMGF to both study the issue and implement solutions.  Now they just need to convince parents, teachers, and the community at large to back their proposed course of action.

It seems straightforward and common sense.  But we don’t always see that in education reform communications, do we?  Yes, we have a while to go before we know if CPS’ approach is effective.  From the cheap seats, it definitely seems like their thoughts, words, and actions are pointed in the right direction.

It’s All About the Outcome

Anyone who has read Eduflack knows that I am a big proponent of outcomes,and not inputs.  I look for results over process.  In education, this is often a difficult fight.  So much effort and so many reputations are tied to the process that we can often lose sight of the end game.

Earlier this week, Eduflack was at an event and had the opportunity to hear Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine talk about his vision for education improvement in the Commonwealth.  Building an aggressive agenda that includes everything from preK to high school improvement to new governor’s STEM academies, Kaine has laid out a true vision.  Such vision can often be lost among the process weeds, though.

The Virginia governor also spoke to a philosophy that far too many so-called education governors need to subscribe to.  This is not an issue of choosing programs, this is about securing results.  To accomplish this, we need to be flexible.  Flexible in our choices.  Flexible in our approaches.  Certain of our goals.

Don’t understand what he means?  Take a look at elementary reading instruction.  It’s very easy for educators or school boards to step forward and say we should adopt program X or intervention Y.  We can choose such programs because they work, or we can select them because we recognize the name, we enjoyed the sales pitch, or we just had a feeling.

In selecting a program, our goal is reading achievement.  We want all students reading at grade level.  We want to encourage good readers to become better readers.  We want to help struggling readers.  And we want to measure the results.  We don’t need Reading First to set those goals.  It’s been the objective of elementary teachers since Dick and Jane first got together.

Unfortunately, in recent years we’ve gotten too caught up in the process.  And battles like the Reading Wars have made flexibility a bad word.  Kaine is right.  We need to be flexible if we expect to get results.  What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another.  We need the ability to adopt approaches that work in schools and classes and with kids just like ours.  And teachers need the ability to adapt to the individual needs of students or classes.

Yes, Virginia, results matter.  And flexibility helps us achieve those results.  Governor Kaine may be on to something here. 

What’s Wrong with Boston?

The writers of Boston Legal are at it again.  A few months ago, the plot line went after NCLB.  This week’s episode (thank you, DVR) centers its attack on the American high school.  Now, we have a mother suing her late daughter’s high school, alleging that the rigors of high school were responsible for her daughter’s “driving while drowsy” death.

Like the NCLB episode, we have a Boston high school full of overachievers.  This time, lawyers are attacking the high school experience because kids are working too hard.  They are taking too many AP courses.  They are involved in too many extracurriculars.  They all want to be tops in their class, and they all want to attend Harvard.  

While I still want to find this Boston high school that seems to be all white with a 100% graduation rate and every kid moving onto postsecondary education, I just have to let it go.  But there was one line that was truly disturbing.

In attacking the rigor of the high school, the mother’s lawyer asks why do we need to offer AP courses at all? Those are college courses, she says, they should be offered in college and not in high school.  Of course, the school’s principal agrees, and placed the blame on the students.  If we didn’t offer all those AP classes, the principal says, kids would just go to a different high school that would meet their needs.

Eduflack doesn’t know which is more ridiculous, the cavalier notion of school choice or the disdain for AP courses.  Let’s leave the former alone, knowing it is an absurd statement without any ground in reality.  The latter is just as frustrating, seeking to place blame on a solution, rather than a problem.

Just last week, we saw that more students are taking AP classes than ever before.  Whether they secure a four or five on the exam is irrelevant.  These students are able to experience college-level instruction before they get to college.  They get to learn if they are up to the rigors of a college-level exam.  They get to explore new subjects.  And they get the opportunity to earn college credits or exemptions from college requirements.

No one is saying a high school junior or senior should be taking five or seven AP courses each semester.  But if they have the interest and the ability, they should be allowed to push themselves and see what they are capable of.  They should be given the opportunity to succeed, rather than given the an excuse to fail.

Many can say we are where we are in public education because of low expectations.  A decade or two ago, students were lucky if they could take two or three AP courses during high school.  Today, schools can offer dozens of such courses.  That’s a good thing, not a reason to attack well-meaning high schools.

Maybe the writers for Boston Legal should go in and take a real tour of real Boston’s public schools before they use them for another plot line or as a punchline to another joke.  Those TV junkies will remember a great little Fox drama called Boston Public, set in a Beantown public high school.  If memory serves, those writers seemed to get what public education was all about.  Maybe they can offer a little primer to James Spader and company.  Or we could just keep education on the news pagers, instead of the TV reviews.
   

 

Let’s Make Dropping Out Illegal!

By now, the numbers are ingrained on the souls of most education reformers.  Nearly a third of all ninth graders will not earn a high school diploma.  In our African-American and Hispanic communities, that number statistic rises to nearly 50 percent.  Imagine, a 50/50 chance of earning a high school diploma of you are a student of color.  The statistic is so staggering, there must be something we can do.

In today’s USA Today, we have the dueling editorials on a potential solutions — raising the drop-out age.  The line of thinking here is that if we raise the age a student must be in order to drop out of high school to 18, we can turn this crisis around.  Think of it.  Require, by law, every kid to stay in school until they are 18, and the drop-out rates will dramatically shrink.

Of course, 17 states already have such compulsory school attendance laws, with one more going online next summer.  Do we believe that those states — which include California, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas — are not struggling with dropouts?  Are grad rates not an issue in LAUSD or New Orleans or Cleveland or Houston?  Of course not.  Those cities are facing the realities of drop-out factories, just like most major urban centers, even if drop-outs need to be 18 to officially leave school.

If we know anything about teenagers, it should be that mandates don’t change behavior.  A 17-year requirement doesn’t keep the average 10th grader from seeing an R-rated movie.  A 21-year age requirement doesn’t keep seniors from taking a sip of beer or a slug of Boone’s Farm.  We have underage driving. We have illegal drug use.  Kids will go after what they want, regardless of the prohibitions or the consequences.  The challenge — and the opportunity — is to convince them to make a good decision.  We don’t chain them to their high school desks, we need to demonstrate to them that they want to stay and they need to stay.

So how do we do that?  Last month, I made reference to some focus groups I did with students on the value and need for high school.  Robert Pondiscio and the folks over at the Core Knowledge Blog (http://www.coreknowledge.org/blog/) hoped they would soon learn a little more about Eduflack’s experiences.  So here goes.

Back in the fall, I spent weeks meeting with eight, ninth, and 10th graders from a state that is pretty representative of the United States.  Strong and not-so-strong urban centers, along with booming suburbs, and struggling rural areas.  A strong commitment to K-16 education, yet major industry leaving the cities and towns that have long depended on it.  Educators and business leaders committed to improvement, yet students not sure what opportunity would be available to them.

My goal was to learn what low-income students thought of their high school offerings and their opportunities for the future.  I didn’t spend my time in the suburbs or with the honors or college prep students.  I met with poor urban students, and I met with poor rural students.  Most came from families where college had never been an option.  And all came from homes with a very real fear that this generation may not be as successful as the generation before it.

I planned for the worst.  I expected students to justify, or even respect, dropping out.  How good union jobs could be found without a high school diploma or how gangs and other outside influences made school a lesser priority.  But what I heard during this experience gave me hope, and made it clear we can improve high school graduation rates simply by boosting relevance, interest, and access.

What did I hear?  In general:

* Students understand and appreciate the link between high school and “good” careers.
* For virtually all students, dropping out is not a productive option.  For many, they don’t even think you can get a fast food job today without that diploma.
* Students know relevant courses such as those found in STEM programs are key to obtaining meaningful employment after school.
* They are eager to pursue postsecondary opportunities while in high school.  They may not know anyone who has taken an AP or dual enrollment course, but they know it has value.
* Students want more career and technical education offerings.  They know these are relevant courses that link directly to future jobs.

And what more did Eduflack learn?  The greatest obstacle we face is awareness.  This isn’t about requiring kids to stay in school.  This is about opening opportunities and helping them see the choices and the pathways available to them.  Today’s high schools are not one-size-fits-all.  And that’s OK.  Today’s students want to know what’s available to them and what aligns with their aptitudes and their interests.  They want a consumer-based educational experience.

Parents still play a key role in this little dance, as does the business community.  Students expect their parents to push and guide them.  They may not always listen, but students know they need their parents with them as they head down those pathways.  With businesses, students just want to learn about the opportunities.  What is needed to become a physician assistant or a manager at the local manufacturing plant or a graphic designer.  Today’s students do have career aspirations, but most of them have never met someone who holds that job nor do they know what is needed to achieve such a position.  Now is the time for businesses to educate their future workforce.

I’ve done similar focus groups across the nation over the last decade, and the findings have been remarkably similar.  Students have a far better sense for their futures than we give them credit for.  They know it will be hard.  They know they’ll need help.  But they know there are multiple pathways available to them.  They just need their teachers and parents and priests and community leaders to see it to.

These kids aren’t dropping out of high school because it is too hard or because they are finally old enough that they can stop going to school and stay at home and watch TV all day.  They leave because they don’t see the relevance.  They don’t see how the classes they are taking crosswalk to their career or life goals.  They don’t believe postsecondary education may be possible for them.  They don’t believe they have the ability to gain access to those multiple pathways. 

Raising the drop-out age won’t change that.  If we want more students to stay in high school, earn their diplomas, and pursue postsecondary education, we need to inspire and motivate them.  We need to give them hope.  We need to demonstrate that high school is the first step toward a happy and successful life.  It needs to be relevant.  It needs to be interesting and engaging.  And it needs to lift up all students, not talk down to them with mandates and lowered expectations.
  

“Reading is So Hot!”

A year ago, virtually everyone had left reading instruction improvement for dead.  Massive cuts to Reading First seemed to trump whatever data the states or the U.S. Department of Education were putting out on reading scores.  The appearance of flat NAEP reading scores only added to the sentiment.  And even those optimists looking for NCLB 2.0 to be passed this year haven’t spent much time talking about the RF component of the law.

But over the weekend, The Washington Post put reading instruction clearly back on the reform frontburner.  Saturday brought an op-ed from E.D. Hirsch, Jr., the chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation.  Hirsch’s premise is simple — if we expect schools to meet AYP on reading, we need to provide greater focus and gain greater understanding of comprehension skills.  But more simply, we need a national commitment to building vocabulary and reading comprehension in all students.

Today’s Post has op-eds by Howard Gardner and Susan Jacoby, both discussing our national need to read.  Gardner talks of the end of literacy.  Jacoby of the dumbing of America.  Both embracing a similar theme that reading skills lead to success.

All three, of course, are correct.  Reading skills are the core to student achievement and successful lives.  While critics of Reading First have dubbed the program a “phonics” program, the initiative was always based on an approach that included equal priority to phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.  So what does this renewed attention on reading comprehension and ability tell us?

First, reading skill acquisition is not limited to the reading or English/Language Arts classroom.  Reading skills are also acquired through content areas like science and social studies.  That is why such a focus has been paid to reading at grade level by fourth grade.  Students need those reading skills to achieve in their science, history, and even math classes.

Second, reading instruction is a team sport.  Yes, teachers need to do whatever they can to build reading skills — particularly comprehension — in all students.  Parents and families bear a similar responsibility.  They need to model good reading behavior.  They need to encourage their kids.  And they need to be aware of their kids’ strengths and weaknesses, and do what they can to improve on the latter.

Finally, comprehension is king.  Hirsch is correct.  We can get kid to memorize vocabulary words, but if they don’t understand what they are reading, what good is it?  As we get more sophisticated in our reading assessments, student reading skills are measured on their ability to independently read a text and demonstrate they understand what they read.  Knowing letter sounds and vocabulary words are important components to reading.  Successful reading, though, can only truly be measured through comprehension.

Where does it all leave us?  Reading skills are just as important today as they have ever been.  Such skills are successfully obtained when instruction is focused on all five of the key components to research-based reading.  And we can’t let anyone forget either.  Reading instruction should still rule the reform roost.  Comprehension skills should be the measure of effective instruction.

Unlike Gardner and Jacoby, Eduflack isn’t ready to proclaim the end of literacy or the dumbing of America.  There are too many good educators, too many good researchers, and too many good minds committed to improving reading instruction in the United States.  But if Eduflack is to hold that optimism, we must redouble our efforts to get scientifically based research, proven-effective instruction, relevant professional development, and good ole good books into every classroom. 

If we are to be a nation of readers, we need the skill, the passion, and the texts to prove Gardner and Jacoby wrong.  And we have miles to go in that regard.

Every Teacher a Reader?

In fights over teacher quality, we often ask what makes a good teacher.  NCLB’s HQT provisions called on teachers to have a degree in the subject and be certified. Leaders such as the NCLB Commission have sought to strengthen the provision, adding a measure of teacher effectiveness to the requirements.  Has anyone thought that a classroom teacher should be functionally literate?  Does a teacher need basic reading and writing skills to teach?

If we look at the story out of 10 News in San Diego, apparently not.  They tell the tell of John Corcoran, a now-retired teacher who earned a teaching degree from an accredited four-year college and then went on to teach high school for 17 years.  He did it all while being completely illiterate.  Cheated his way through school.  Taught without ever writing a word on the chalk board.  Now he is an education advocate who runs a foundation and an SES provider out in California.  Check out the full story here — http://www.10news.com/news/15274005/detail.html.

It is an entertaining tale, and just the sort of urban legend we hear now and again.  While most will be moved by the story of a man who finally learned to read at 48 and committed the second stage of his life to literacy advocacy, what message does it say that an illiterate high school teacher led a classroom for almost two decades, and no one ever found out.

I appreciate that he used his classroom to build a learning environment based on the visual and oral.  As you’ve heard Eduflack say again and again, it is important that we use multiple mediums and multiple approaches to reach all students.  But could any of his students really have gained an effective education from an illiterate teacher?  Did students go a full academic year with ever writing a five-paragraph essay or researching and writing a report or even taking a non-multiple choice exam?

I’ll set aside the notion that he had two or three teacher’s assistants helping in his classroom.  That must be some school district.  The bigger question here is what should we expect from our teachers? 

We assume that Mr. Corcoran didn’t have students who complained about his methods or inquired as to why their teacher never seemed to read from the book or write on the board.  And we might even assume that his students did well, using a different learning environment to develop new skills and improve their learning ability for other classes.  He may have been a regular Mr. Holland, who inspired a generation of future teachers, creators, and innovators.

But his revelations speak poorly of the teaching profession as a whole.  We all know that teaching — particularly in a secondary school environment — is one of the toughest jobs out there.  It requires knowledge, skill, patience, and ability.  Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher, and some find that out the hard way.  It is an underappreciated profession, and one where virtually everyone assumes they could do the job if they wanted to. 

And it is that fantasy that Corcoran helps contribute to.  Anyone, even those who can’t read or write a lick, can lead a classroom if they want to.  That’s a dangerous message to send to students, particularly those who are thinking about dropping out because they don’t see the relevance of school.  After all, why learn to read at grade level if your teacher doesn’t have to?

I realize that Corcoran is of an anomaly, and his story is meant to inspire adults who think it is too late to learn to read.  And that would be fine if he were an entrepreneur or a banker or a sales manager or an elected official.  But he was a teacher.  And, like it or not, we expect more from teachers.  They need to be smarter.  They need to be more patient.  They need to be more successful than just about any other profession.

Yes, we want teachers who are highly qualified and effective.  Basic literacy skills should be a non-negotiable.  John Corcoran may be an inspiration to some, but he owes a big apology to the thousands of teachers who take pride in their profession and who lead by example in their classrooms. 

Renovate or Tear Down?

How do we effectively fix the American high school?  We all talk about how our high schools are built on an antiquated notion of school.  We’re delivering 21st century education in a little red school house setting.  Multi-media learning in rows of one-piece desks.  Innovating in a 19th century construct.

We all know of the enormous investment the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made in trying to fix that high school model.  Small schools.  Early college high schools.  Career-based, relevant curriculum.  More rigorous classes.  Multiple pathways to postsecondary education.  A plethora of new instructional approaches to renovate a nagging problem.

And some of these approaches have had real effect.  We’ve seen the value of early college high schools.  Career academies have helped boost graduation rates in many urban districts.  We still have a while to go, though, until we see the long-term impact of these renovations.  Are any of them scalable solutions to fix our high schools, particularly those in our urban centers?  Have we found a true fix?

Believe it or not, it is a question that Eduflack has been thinking on for quite some time now.  Sure, I usually leave my musings to talking about effective communication or effective policy.  But if I’m going to preach innovation to educators, sometimes I need to practice a little myself.  And with Bill Gates taking over the management of his Foundation, I have to believe that investment in U.S. education is soon going to come with an even greater emphasis on results and return on investment.  That means scalability.

In yesterday’s USA Today, columnist Patrick Walsh details the positive impact the construction of a new building had on the motivation, behaviors, and learning at T.C. Williams High School.  (http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2008/02/bricks-mortar-a.html#more)  Walsh’s observations only further encouraged my thinking.

Instead of renovating our existing high schools, what if Gates were to build an entirely new model?  Over the past five years, Gates has learned a great deal about how, and how not, to run an effective high school.  They understand the curriculum and the need for multiple academic pathways.  They understand school structure.  They are starting to get into the HR game, focusing on the teachers that are needed to lead such classrooms.  They are quickly assembling all of the pieces.  Now we move to that bold and audacious act.

What if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were to take its money and build new high schools in our top 25 urban districts?  State-of-the-art buildings. Technology.  Rigorous and relevant curriculum.  Public-private partnerships.  Relevant professional development for the teachers.  Common educational standards measured across all Gates schools.  Open enrollment for all those seeking a better high school experience.  And the power of the Gates Foundation behind it.

And let’s get even bolder.  A system of public high schools managed by the Gates Foundation.  All in major cities across the nation.  All with high standards for its teachers.  All working from a common school design, a common curriculum, and common assessment that, over time, could be replicated in district after district across the nation.

Yes, many high schools — those recently dubbed drop-out factories — would see this as direct competition.  Others would see the possible establishment of these schools under charter school provisions as a threat to public education.  And others would wring their hands over such schools poaching the “good” teachers from our existing public schools, potentially weakening our current infrastructure.  But with up to 50 percent of students at these urban schools dropping out before earning a high school diploma, isn’t the payoff worth the risk?

Competition can be a good thing.  Gates high schools could identify a clear model for both building new schools and renovating existing ones.  It could force current schools to truly improve their practice.  And it could lead all of us to expect more from our schools, while helping us actually get there.

How do we do it?  For one, we can take a look at what Microsoft has done with the creation of its high school in Philadelphia.  Sure, Microsoft and Gates are different organizations.  But they share a common DNA and a common synergy.  Can’t we take that construction approach, coupled with the lessons learned from Gates’ high school redesign investments, to build that better mousetrap? 

Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but this may be just what we need.  Instead of trying to renovate a problematic system, making adjustments that will never make us fully happy or get us all the way to our goals, why not just build new?  Avoid the restrictions and the drawbacks of the past, and build institutions on our current needs, current understanding, and hopes for the future.

It is no easy task.  And the Gates Foundation may be the only organization out there with the resources, vision, and knowledgebase to even undertake it.  A huge risk, no doubt.  But imagine the payoff if it works.