Can We Build A Grad Nation?

We have 15 million high school students, but about 1 million drop out every year. That’s nearly 7%! This means that approximately 1 out of every 4 9th graders won’t graduate high school.

America's Promise, Building a Grad NationToday’s report from America’s Promise, “Building a Grad Nation,” indicates that some progress has been made, but not enough. The report, made possible by Target, calls for a domestic Marshall Plan to address the problem.

I had strong reactions to five points in the report. And if you are too busy to read them all, please skip to #5.

#1: Credit card companies can track us anywhere, anytime, but schools don’t have a clue about where their students end up, because states and schools don’t count graduates and dropouts the same way. We do have a common measure—but, the report notes, “The federal government will require the states to use this calculation for the 2010-2011 school year and be held accountable for their progress based on this calculation for the 2011-2012 school year.”

In other words, wait till next year!

Anybody else wondering why this is taking so long? Florida got its act together years ago, so why haven’t other states followed along? When I was living in California, civil liberties advocates fought a data system, charging that having ID numbers would intrude on the rights of students, even though those numbers would allow academic intervention on a timely basis.

My own hunch is that adults fought data systems because, once they are in place, it’s easy to spot the adult failures. Right now in education, mediocrity pays. Information is the equivalent of light shining on a problem, and many adults would rather not have their efforts exposed to the light.

#2 “Grad Nation” notes that “Research shows that potential dropouts can be identified as early as late elementary and middle school with the warning signs of poor attendance, behavior, and course performance.”

Education is hooked on the medical model. Apparently we are wiling to pay more for rescue efforts than for preventive maintenance. Why is that? Is it educational arrogance, the hero riding in on a white horse to save the failed kids? Or are we just shortsighted and therefore unwilling to spend a few bucks now to save a lot later on? I think of Midas Muffler’s advertising slogan, “Pay me now, or pay me later.”

#3 “Districts and schools are experimenting with innovative strategies to engage parents, including utilizing text messaging, establishing parent centers, and recruiting television stations to keep parents informed.”

This is particularly maddening because it indicates that school people are still drinking their own Kool Aid about their role vis-à-vis that of parents. Hey, guys, parents are the primary educators. A key part of your job is to enable. That means early homework assignments that involve parents and other adults in the home. In 2nd grade kids could be assigned to ‘interview’ someone at home about the first movie they saw, their favorite food, their best vacation ever, and so on. Similar assignments become written homework in later grades. The same approach can be used in mathematics with a little imagination, always involving parents and other adults in the home. Teachers should write notes to the parents on the homework, and they should make calls (and send emails if that’s an option)

#4 The report says the US still has about 1,750 dropout factory high schools still to be closed, but how these are closed matters greatly. It praises some states, including New York, for their success in closing dropout factory high schools, but let’s be wary of unintended consequences. Case in point: New York City has closed a large number of huge high schools, dropout factories all, and established about 250 small high schools. So far, so good. But those replacement small schools did not have enough room for all the students in the closed schools. Think of a perverse game of musical chairs, just 2,000 chairs for 3,000 students. The 1,000 who didn’t get into a small school had to be absorbed somewhere, often in an already overcrowded high school. One principal told my colleague John Tulenko that his school received 450 new students—out of the blue—on one day!

#5 In the section of what needs to be done, “Grad Nation” leads off with the most critical step, and three cheers for them for doing so.

Start with Early Reading. Dropping out is a process that begins long before a student enters high school. Research shows that a student’s decision to drop out stems from loss of interest and motivation in middle school, often triggered by academic difficulties and resulting grade retention. Research also shows that a major cause of retention is failure to master content needed to progress on time, which in many cases, is the result of not being able to read proficiently as early as the 4th grade. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than 80 percent of low-income students failed to score proficiently on national exams in 2009. Half of all low-income 4th graders did not reach the basic level. When children make it to 4th grade without learning to read proficiently, they are being put on a dropout track.

The emphasis is mine, of course.  The point is critical, but the language is appalling. Use of the passive voice amounts to an evasion of responsibility. It’s very much like No Child Left Behind, phrasing that lets everyone off the hook. It’s time to face the facts and speak the truth: When we fail to insist that our most capable teachers be assigned to teach our first graders and second graders, WE are putting our children on a dropout track. That is, WE are doing it, not someone else. That’s a choice we are making.

Building a Grad Nation [Website]

10 thoughts on “Can We Build A Grad Nation?

    • Perhaps it’s time to dig into the guts of the system and expose those who make $$ out of mediocrity.
      Follow the money…


  1. Your commentary, John, reminded me of a “youth sermon” I gave as part of a deputation team that went from a church near my college campus to various churches in the area to take over the service. My very short sermon was associated with the fact that to complete any task successfully, you need to BEGIN that task the best you can do. I illustrated this with the buttons on the overcoat that I wore each time: If you don’t get the lowest button through the lowest button hole, there is no way you can successfully button up your coat. The message and the example seemed to make sense to the youngsters; after the service at coffee hour, I noted usually a number of them investigating the importance of starting correctly to end successfully.

    So, yes, doing right by our elementary students is absolutely critical – not only to avoid dropout problems but also to address the more significant goal: each student maximizing her or his potential throughout their formal schooling. As an emeritus engineering faculty member and associate dean, I am of course most comfortable about science education. With youngsters having so much curiosity, it would be a natural for a series of inquiry activities to stimulate motivation and thus learning in science [and reading and math if approached logically]; BUT the teachers have convinced themselves all too often that they weren’t prepared to facilitate such efforts and thus they minimize science as much as possible and use canned, boring, and poor packages when they must do science. And of course this kills the student interest and motivation to do science – leading to later dropout and or total aversion to careers associated in any way with science.

    Sorry to be so longwinded and personal but your piece really struck a cord with me.


    • I love the buttoning the coat analogy and can’t wait to use it. I will give you full credit, of course.
      How do we help elementary teachers get over their fear of science (and fear of not appearing all-knowing)?


      • I would love to participate in (and thus also would recommend) some long-term hands-on professional development where elementary teachers themselves actually do inquiry with the important follow-up discussion and reflection about what’s happening. Then when they are feeling more comfortable, have them start small – again with the access to PD facilitator(s) to explore concerns and celebrate successes. Likely there will be “choir members” doing the PD because of perceived but not actual lack of confidence (as well as others already confident and doing inquiry). These quickly become the local facilitators as the PD effort grows and expands.

        I often describe it as like the spider plant: a healthy situation develops in one location. The the healthy “plant” sends out runners to new locations and these grow into healthy plants. As this keeps occurring multiple times, the coverage continuously with the PD being replaced with self-facilitating support groups.

        I know, another long answer – but one I believe in.


  2. Most of the numbers you – and America’s Promise – cite are old news. Dropout patterns are well known and extensively researched – Jay Smink and the National Dropout Prevention Center, the Consortium on Chicago School Research early indicators research, and John Hattie’s shibboleth against grade retention are ample evidence of what’s wrong. Early diversion, building more and more accessible social networks to keep kids coming, and flexible curricula with easy data collected in timely and intelligible fashion are all well established interventions. When a 7th grade student has been held back, due largely to poor attendance, the probability is over 90% he (usually he) will never finish grade 12. And it really is not his fault.

    Nor even the schools’ fault, if fault were known. It’s a system of hierarchies that remain unquestioned; a network of achievement metrics that have rapidly declining value and meaning; and a remarkably anti-intellectual view of – of all things – learning.

    Citing NAEP is like citing any other test – it’s got some insights but not many, and some value, but not much. Exploring the failure of school through the lives of children schools fail shows many other features neither America’s Promise nor American educators seem to think has value. Kids are largely right and schools are largely boring; teachers are largely trapped in curricula that’s so hierarchical that they must do the boring stuff first, always putting off to later what kids come to explore. Everybody means well, but it’s all designed from outside in, top down, and nothing from inside out, bottom up.

    If you watch a three year old explore counting, and listen to multisyllabic early speech; attend to a young person so frustrated he fails for attendance rather than ignorance, and to his teachers eager to help but trapped in unquestioned curricula and impersonal assessments; and listen to the thrill a young adult finds in presenting new knowledge in creative ways, then you can see why schools fail. Only then. Well meaning, well intended and well educated teachers who give young people a kind of intellectual stimulation and social security, cultural exploration and personal satisfaction: ah, that is the trick. It is not a matter of rigid sequence, of pre-requisites and post-testing, all of which have some slight meaning, but none of which have the same meaning to the learner as to parents, teachers, and bureaucrats. It is, instead, patterns of stimulating insights to explore, and networks of ideas to relate; systems of behaviors to construct and sequences of people to negotiate; a lot of books, most certainly, to read or to skim or to page through; but also an awful lot of websites to judge, to challenge, to adapt and to create; webs and strings of people, peers, parents, school and work, careers and options to explore and to create some criteria for judgment, for respect, and to address deeper and often less easily articulated fears.

    But you’re right. Schools aren’t what they used to be. There are many reasons why they’ve changed, including the world that brings this message to you, and yours to me. Wringing hands over their failure to automate is like lighting a candle for old Miss Molly: she’s past now, and there are others to attend. That means building education from the kid to the world, and not imposing a world now passed on a kid who knows better. They may not know much, nor read widely, nor handle as many syllables as we, but they will succeed us. And we better give them the skills they need to do … just that.


  3. Youth producers at Wide Angle Youth Media speak out about topics like this by creating poster campaigns for their peers. The posters will prominently displayed in Baltimore City Public Schools and producers had an opportunity to present them to the U.S. Department of Education as well. The campaign encourages students to stay connected to school, and how regular attendance will benefit their futures. Visit our website to see the poster series.


  4. Of course the schools are going to be paid by the states for each kid they keep track of, right? Or, are our schools just flush with cash and they won’t miss the money they are going to lay out for this scheme? If a school is entrepreneurial enough maybe they could sell the list to someone else who could use the information. How entrepreneurial are schools anyway?


  5. We must also find ways to convince and engage parents in the process of ‘teaming up’ with their child’s teacher to make sure that their child builds a solid reading foundation.


  6. I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s each educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you may have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is excellent; the issue is something that not sufficient people are talking intelligently about. I am very joyful that I stumbled across this in my seek for something relating to this.


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