Can you legislate graduation rates? Today, the Washington Post editorial board called on the state of Maryland to raise the compulsory age for school attendance, essentially using state law to require students to stay in Maryland high schools until the age of 18 (it is 16 now). The move, following on the heels of a similar policy adopted by the Montgomery County Board of Education is in direct response to the latest data showing a growing dropout rate in Maryland. The full editorial can be found here.
Eduflack is all for any measure designed to improve high school graduation rates, but can you really legislate the problem away? And if so, why just raise the dropout age to 18? Why not require by law that every student stay in school until they earn a high school diploma or reach the age of 21? Why not mandate a high school diploma in order to secure a driver’s license or buy a beer?
We don’t take such steps because such a “stick” approach to high school reform simply doesn’t work. Despite the best of intentions, requiring an intended dropout to stay in school for two extra years rarely results in that “a-ha” moment when he finds his calling in high school, puts himself on the illuminated path, earns his diploma, and leads a successful life. It leads to two more years of resentment, coupled with two years of wasted resources at the school and district level.
Talk to anyone who has succeeded in high school improvement efforts, and you will hear that the secret to true high school transformation is not about maintaining the current course. To boost high school graduation rates, we need to make classroom learning more relevant to at-risk students. We need to personalize courses, connecting directly with students. We need to bring real-life into classroom learning, through internships, speakers, and any other means that link high school with life.
As part of its efforts to invest in meaningful high school reform models, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has regularly touted the successes of the high school reform model offered by Big Picture Learning. While the Gates model for high schools has shifted over the years, its praise for Big Picture has been unwavering. But the Big Picture model has been one of those “best kept secrets” in education policy. Those intimate with the details are true believers, but many are unawares of what the Rhode Island-based organization is truly doing in schools across the world. (Full disclaimer, Eduflack worked with Big Picture’s founders on their October policy event.)
Last month, Big Picture held its coming out in Washington, DC, educating the policy community on how the Big Picture model fits with the current call for school improvement and innovation. Touting the need for “disruptive innovation” in school improvement, Big Picture leaders focused on the importance of a student-centered curriculum, a close relationship with teachers, and real world internships to best serve those students at greatest risk of dropping out. And working in more than 130 schools, Big Picture knows of what it speaks. More than eight in 10 BPL schools receive Title I funding, while 66 percent of their students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Such measures are usually the early markers of dropout factories and graduation problems. But at Big Picture schools, more than 92 percent of students earn their high school diplomas (compared with 52 percent nationally). And 95 percent of their students are accepted into college, the first step toward achieving the President’s college-educated Americans goal by 2020.
The true measure of Big Picture’s effectiveness, though, may best be found in what others were saying about them in DC a few weeks ago. According to Congressman George Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, “Big Picture is engaging students in discovering the level of context they understand, and how they apply it, and how they appreciate it, and how they can connect it to the next task in education, life, and experience.”
And Harvard Business School Prof. Clay Christensen, the author of Disrupting Class and the godfather of the concept of “disruptive innovation” said: “I think that the Big Picture schools are about as great an example of integrating opportunities to feel success with the delivery of curriculum as exists in America. By knitting together the delivery of the content they need to learn, with projects that allow them to use that they learn and feel successful, they’ve just done a wonderful thing; and I think it is a beacon for all of us.”
High praise from two who know a little bit about the topics of school improvement and comprehensive reforms. So how does it translate back into what our states and school districts are looking to do through Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation to improve our schools and reform those so-called dropout factories? Big Picture co-founder Elliot Washor summed it up best as part of their October event: “In our quest to improve public education, we often overlook the importance of the student perspective. Based on our experiences, students thrive in high school when they see the relevance to their current interests and future plans. Every student can earn a high school diploma with the right classroom and practical instruction.”
The data is there, and folks like Bill Gates and George Miller have recognized the benefits and impact. Perhaps there really is more to high school improvement than increasing the compulsory age for school attendance. Relevance and an increased focus on the students surely can’t hurt.