Failing to Meet Our Parents’ Expectations

Earlier this month, we had the American Council on Education release data showing that today’s students are attaining less education than their parents.  At the time, I took that to mean that many students stopping at their BAs have parents with advanced degrees, the kids of BA parents are wrapping up at the associates level, and some children of college grads are settling for just a high school diploma.

Over the past decade, particularly over the past three or so years, it seemed pretty clear to Eduflack that there was universal agreement, at least among adults, that a high school diploma was a non-negotiable in today’s world.  I’ve even say that every student requires some form of postsecondary education — be it training program, community college, or four-year degree — if they are to compete and succeed in the 21st century economy.  We may say it, but the Education Trust’s latest report is enough to send a chill down my eduspine.
If you’ve missed it, has the story —  The headline says it all.  Kids are less likely to graduate than their parents.  What the headline is missing, but the lede provides, is that we are now talking about HIGH SCHOOL.  Today, in 2008, teenagers are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were.  And according to the EdTrust numbers, one in four kids is dropping out of high school, a number than has held steady for a half-decade now.
This story should be a punch in the gut to all of those who have been working on high school reform efforts for the past decade.  After all of the time and money and attention and effort that the Gates Foundation and the Alliance for Excellent Education and Jobs for the Future and the National High School Alliance and others have poured into improving the high school experience, we still haven’t convinced our young people that a high school diploma is a worthwhile goal.
Yesterday, we heard the EdSec talk about the importance of a common high school graduation rate, so we know where every state stands when it comes to handing out the diplomas.  Alliance President Bob Wise likened it to Fedex, providing us real-time data to understand where every student is along the continuum.  But according to EdTrust, even when we let each state set their own rates (and some set the bar awfully low), only half of states are hitting the mark.  Once every state adopts the NGA formula mandated by the U.S. Department of Education, state grad rates are likely to fall in the short term (and not just hold) in a great number of states.  It becomes hard to hide behind the data when you don’t get to set the data collection terms.
Don’t worry, I am not hear to rant (or to continue to rant) about what we need to do to make high school more rigorous or relevant or how to better capture data.  We have enough of that information from those individuals and organizations that have dedicated their work lives to the process.  One just has to look at a state like Ohio, both through its OHSTI and ECHS efforts, to see how you improve the secondary school experience.
No, the EdTrust data isn’t a clarion call for yet another round of ideas on high school reform or redesign.  Instead, it is a clear and unquestioned alert that we need to do a better job communicating with today’s young people.
Speak to many involved in high school redesign efforts, and they will talk about their work with school administrators, teachers, and state policymakers.  They’ll talk about the role of the business community.  Some may even mention a parent or a member of the clergy.  But when it comes to talking about primary audiences for high school reform, we often take students — the end user and ultimate customer — for granted.
All the reform and improvement in the world doesn’t mean squat if the student doesn’t see the value and importance of it.  And the only way we can effectively communicate that value is to communicate with the students themselves.
Are kids dropping out because class is too hard or because it is too boring?  Are they dropping out to pursue a job opportunity or because they want out of school?  Are classes fun and interesting?  Do they have career plans?  Are they getting classes that align with those career plans?  Do they know what it takes to secure the job they want?  What do they deem a good job?  Are they engaging with their teachers?  Are they using technology?  Do they see high school dropouts who are succeeding?  Who are they getting advice from?  What’ll it take to keep them in the classroom?
Over the years, Eduflack has done more than his share of focus groups with high school students.  Each time, I am surprised by how we underestimate them and their views on the value of education.  Often, these sessions are the first time a 15-year-old has been asked by an adult what their goals are and how they get there.  I’ve spoken with kids in some of the poorest areas in our nation, urban and rural, and I can tell you one thing — every kid knows dropping out simply isn’t an option.  They know it is a wasted opportunity.  And they know it means a future of struggle.
So what do we do about it?  As a nation, we have invested billions of dollars into high school redesign efforts, working to improve instruction, delivery, measurement, rigor, and relevance in our secondary schools.  We’ve made great strides.  But the EdTrust numbers and last year’s study on dropout factories tells us we still have a long way to go.  
We don’t need more redesign.  We need a better sales job.  We need state policymakers and superintendents to better understand what works, both to increase the grad rate and boost student achievement on the state exams.  We need teachers to better understand how to relate to today’s students, connecting lessons in chemistry or history or English to student interests and student desires.  But most importantly, we need to sell students on the notion that this is just the first major step down the path they want to take, that they need to take.
Students need to better understand that secondary and postsecondary education are requirements for a good job in this economy.  Students need to know dropping out is never a viable choice.  Students need to know the career and life options before them, and the education required to get them there.  Students need to be challenged, both in terms of curriculum and its delivery.  Students need choices and options, whether they be honor students or struggling learners.  Students need to value a high school diploma as much as their parents or grandparents do.
It is easy to lecture at a kid and tell them this is important.  It is even easy to inform them on why they need to stay in school and why they need to take their education seriously.  And it is somewhat comforting to know that we don’t need to overly worry about three out of every four students out there.  But for that remaining 25%, we need to take bold action to change their minds and change their behavior.  We need to get them to stay in school.  That doesn’t come by changing the drop-out age to 18 or mandating exit exams for all.  That comes from communicating the value and need of secondary instruction.  That comes from engaging today’s kids (and often before they get to high school).  It comes from selling kids on school and their future.  
We may think we are doing it, but the data shows we clearly are not.  Instead of communicating with students, we are speaking past them.  We need big change, at least when it comes to the attitudes of young people.  Without it, our schools, our economy, and our nation will never live up to the sta
ndard we set or the potential we have.

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