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Left Behind

Left_behind I am knee deep in some incredibly depressing high school dropout statistics as I prepare for a major forum I'm coordinating next week. Part of the problem I'm seeing is an incredible failure of expectations.

For example, in Pennsylvania the target graduation rate is 80%. Yes friends, out of every 100 bright-eyed 9th graders who enters a PA high school, we only expect 80 of them to graduate. I'm not sure what we think the other 20 will be doing with their lives, when most jobs require some kind of post-secondary education, let alone a high school diploma. But there it is. If we can achieve 80%, then we can pat ourselves on the back.

What's even more depressing, though, is that several districts are actually failing this measure, many of them quite miserably. And this is not a Pennsylvania problem. It's a national one.

After weeks of digging through reports on the crisis and how to reconnect disconnected young people to meaningful work and employment, I'm well aware of the complicated nature of the problem and the fact that we cannot expect schools to tackle this issue on their own. This is a community issue that can only be addressed with community-wide solutions (and I'm using "community" as in the "American community.").

What bothers me is that we're shooting so low. Because we've done such a crappy job in the past in so many communities with making sure that our young people are well-prepared for tomorrow's jobs, we figure that doing "better" means that we're OK. But having 40% of African American boys drop out of high school rather than 50% isn't really something for which we should be patting ourselves on the back. We should be asking what else we can do to make sure that 100% are graduating. And even for many of those who are "graduating" we are failing them.

I'm also bothered by the excuses. Yesterday I participated in a forum that brought together educators and employers to discuss how to attract more students to careers in advanced manufacturing where an associate's degree can get kids a job paying $45,000 a year with access to healthcare and tuition benefits that could earn them a Ph.D if they wanted. These businesses are desperate for skilled workers.

What struck me was how little the educators actually LISTENED to what employers had to say about what was needed and how little they were focused on problem-solving. Instead, they used the Q&A time to talk about all the reasons why they couldn't do anything about the situation. They don't have time, they don't have resources, it's a failure of leadership at the top and--worst of all--they just aren't getting the "right quality" of students. The irony is that these same people are frustrated with the excuses they get from kids. HELLO--where do you think the kids are learning this from?!

The Forum that I'm preparing to facilitate next week is allowing me to work closely with 10 kids who have dropped out of high school. Many of them made some poor choices--what 17 year old hasn't? But unlike many kids who are protected by their parents from the consequences of their poor decisions, these kids are forced to deal daily with the errors in judgment they made. What has struck me the most in this process was how uncaring many of the adults in their lives have been, particularly the adults in the educational and social service systems.

I'm also amazed at the resilience and intelligence of these kids and how engaged they can be in the process of resolving their own issues when given the appropriate structures and supports. These kids aren't unmotivated (as many of their teachers believed). They just weren't motivated by huge classes, worksheets and people who figured they were going to fail anyway, so why bother?

Normally in this blog I focus on workplace learning issues and using technology to address them. But the reality is, these kids who are not making it are our workplace future. Each year that a state like Pennsylvania accepts an 80% graduation rate as a "success" is a year that thousands of youth are being sent into the world woefully underprepared for any kind of meaningful employment. Every time we say it's the kid's fault they aren't learning, this is another kid we have failed.

You can't be worried about talent management without wondering what we're going to do if we continue down this road. Baby Boomers are beginning to retire in droves. Who do they think will be paying the taxes to support their Social Security benefits? Who will be caring for them, providing services to them, making the products that they'll want to buy?

This is an issue that should be important to all of us and something we can't afford to continue to ignore. If we don't work together as a community to help everyone be successful, then as a community we are going to fall. I don't have answers, but I sure wish we'd spend some time asking more questions and trying to address what I think is one of the looming crises we'll be facing in the next several years.

Flickr photo via RFKohn


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Almost daily, I read of school cuts being made due to rising costs. Earlier this week, I read about schools having to cut back on both the quantity and quality of lunch options due to budgetary constraints. Yet, there never seems to be a shortage of funds - thanks, I suppose, mostly to boosters - for things that should be secondary at best, like new sod for the football field or renovating the gymnasium. So, we're perfectly willing to toss tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars at sports-related resources in school, yet we're going to balk at ensuring that kids have at least one quality meal available to them per day?

Perhaps it's just that school administrators simply don't reach out for community support on the really important stuff? Maybe it's that parents largely can't be bothered to be involved in their children's educational well-being?

Obviously there isn't a single point of failure here, but I do consider parent apathy to be a huge contributor to the problem.

I don't even have a school-age child, but if it means that kids will have access to a quality meal, go ahead and jack up my taxes a few more bucks! And where's the clipboard for signing up to be a member of the "I even care about kids who aren't involved in sports" booster club?

I planned to be a teacher when I graduated from college ten years ago. In my first position, I taught 11th grade British literature, and at least 50% of my students couldn't read--not because they weren't bright, but because their families, communities and, yes, teachers had failed them. Because students couldn't do the work, they acted out, and I spent most of my time trying to keep order in the classroom. I went home from work in tears every single day, and I didn't last past Christmas in that job.

What benefit were those students getting from being in my classroom? Some of them probably dropped out before graduation, but I guarantee that a high percentage of them graduated and were sent out into the work force illiterate.

My point is that high school graduation rates are one metric, but I don't think they reveal the full extent of the crisis in our educational system. This is a problem that starts in kindergarten and compounds year after year. Whether kids end up dropping out or not, we are failing them.

I never went back to teaching.

Many thanks for this post Michelle.

I don't know the exact stats in the UK, but many of the challenges of lack of commitment to the education of disenfranchised young people are, I believe, mirrored.

A friend of mine who worked last year as a teaching assistant told me about a school meeting where they were told to focus all effort at students on the C grade borderline, and to effectively ignore those who had little chance of making it above a D grade - because the targets and league tables refer to C grades and above. The culture that basically sees learners simply as statistics has a lot to answer for...

I was quite inspired though by a recent conversation with Dougald Hine from School of Everything ( - when he related a city in which instead of focussing on raising young people's aspirations - a group went door to door in a community to work with parents to find out what they would like to learn about. Many parents had had very negative experiences of education, and so were not supporting their children to have positive aspirations. By helping parents (and a whole community) reconnect with education (I believe through matching people with skills up with people who wanted to learn those skills on the community level), the support for young people's education was increased - and young people's educational attainment was improved as a result.

This report: from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation into the role of local setting and young people's (offline) social networks in affecting young people's educational attainment and aspiration may also be of interest.

I have to say that if I could go back and do it all over again I would have dropped out of high school. I tried and a teacher talked me out of it. One of my biggest regrets. High school was a waste of time. I wanted to do what my other gifted friends were doing and quit and start college. Instead I got burned out on school and took 10 years to go back to college after graduating.

That was in the 80s. Education has come a long way since then or at least from what I've seen on the edublogger sites. I hope that teachers today have the tools they need to motivate, engage, and inspire youth who so desperately need inspiration!

Seems like this is a global problem. While education is one of the problems India is facing, "employability" is yet another problem that India is having to deal with. So while we have 2.7 million graduates coming out of our education system each year, only 10-12% of them are employable. And it is not just vocational skills that they are lacking, but a whole host of life skills that are critical for the students to have to succeed in a work environment. The industry is begining to recognize this and joining hands in building a more employable workforce. There are many corporate social responsibility projects of many companies that are working towards improving employability skills in many rural and urban areas.

@ Clarita, as a teacher who is near retirement I am touched by your raw and somewhat poignant comment. It sounds as if you did the right thing, though you obviously felt that you had a calling, or you would not have stuck it out even for as long as you did.

Teachers have to be dedicated in order to succeed in what they try to do for their kids. From the point of view of the teacher, there is a balance that only the teacher can control. This is between being sufficiently dedicated as a teacher and managing personal life so that dedication can be maintained.

However complex the system of educating kids may be, the humanness of the people at the interface – the kids and the teachers - can never be overlooked. There is a balancing act like two people seesawing on a high trapeze. One represents the welfare of the kids, the other the welfare of the teachers. Anything that interferes with the welfare of one side will also affect the welfare of the other.

Whatever it was that caused your distress and that brought about your decision to leave teaching, it left the kids you could have taught wanting a teacher. I agree with you that families and communities had failed them. But I don’t believe that their teachers were necessarily culpable.

I hope you found a new job that gave you the fulfilment that you looked for in teaching.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments!

@Rob--I think you're right that one of the issues is that this is not seen as a community issue. It's the "school's fault" or "parents are to blame" or it's kids. There's no sense that everyone has a part to play not just in the problem, but also in the solutions. That's one of the things we're trying to address in the Forum we're holding next week.

@Clarita--Sounds like you were in a really tough situation, and I know that a lot of teachers feel like you. A good percentage of teachers (I think something like 50%) leave the profession within 5 years, which should really tell us something about what's going on in schools.

@Tim--Thanks for the great references. I realized after reading your comment that I've been homophilic again, relying primarily on American research and information, rather than looking to see what's going on overseas and how other countries are addressing these same issues. Manish's comment further confirmed that feeling.

@Anonymous Mentee--you bring up an excellent point. Last night I was talking with one of the adult facilitators for the Forum we're planning and he said he was encouraged to quit school and get his GED at 16 because school was going to be a "waste" for him--that way he could go to college earlier. I think that one of the reasons kids act out in school is because they're bored to tears and I don't blame them. We need to figure out how to keep things rigorous and relevant if we're going to get anywhere.

@Manish--I'd love to hear more about what businesses are doing in India to support the development of employability skills. Again, much could be learned by us trading knowledge in these areas.

For two years, I taught 8th grade in Baltimore City, which has one of the worst high school graduation rates in the nation (38.5%). My first year teaching, I had as many as 45 teenagers in one class and only the only school-provided supplies were a set of 40 books (for five classes) and 2 gallons of iodine. As a society, we are failing many and sometimes I fear, most of our children.

I am about to express heretical position, but I feel that setting institutional goals for less than perfection can be appropriate. I know for a fact that it is depressing to work in an environment where, no matter how much you improve, you always fall short of your ideal. We need to keep in mind that it is difficult to attract quality teachers to cities like Baltimore and even more difficult to keep them. I believe that when the graduation rates in places like Baltimore increase, we should allow them to self-congratulate and should applaud their achievement. I know what the students, parents, and teachers are up against. I may be criticized for accepting the status quo, but I don't; I simply recognize that it takes more than an ideal to create change.

Having a son who has never engaged with school I am very interested in this discussion. He was going to drop out this year (this is his final year) but he doesn't know what else he wants to do so hanging out at school is as good a place as any to be. The problem for him, being a non-academic, is having a teacher and curriculum that engages hims. Unfortunately, having those two things come together at the same hasn't happened much during his time at school. I believe very strongly that we need to look at how we engage with non-academic kids, especially boys - but that is nothing new, is it?

hi, I found your blog when Jane just made a Twitter comment. There's simply no excuse for abandoning those 20%, but that's what happens when we trust education to people who don't take government seriously at the national level. Doing something about the kids who don't fit in the system is something that the "MBA President" and his cohorts can't comprehend. Here in New Orleans, we're in the midst of the big, post-storm "charter school experiment." While the charter schools appear to be working for the average kid, the companies running those schools just don't know what to do with the 20%. And there won't be any programs or funds for them, since they just don't fit.

Still, there's more than enough blame to go around in terms of how we got to this point. School administrators and teachers' unions alike fight to protect their turf, often at the expense of the students.

Anyway, thanks for the post, even if the title did scare me. Coming to someone's blog from Twitter, sometimes you don't quite know where you're going, and when I saw "Left Behind," I was worried I was going down an "end times" road. :-)

This was a great post! My husband dropped out of high school and joined the navy where he got his GED. Later on in life, he went on to college and actually became a judge. I bounce a lot of ideas off of him when it comes to teaching because I feel that he is more realistic than I am about what works and what doesn't. His biggest complaint about schools (when he was there) was that no one made the learning relevant. If someone showed him a real life situation where he would have needed to know these skills, he might have put in more effort. He felt like he was the square peg being forced to fit in the round hole. This really makes me look at the way I teach and the relevance of what I'm teaching. I think we should talk more to those who dropped out to try to find out ways to improve our education system. If something isn't working, then we should try to find out why and work towards fixing it, not find excuses why we can't even try.

I think it's important to look at models that are having an impact, such as door-to-door home chats with parents that Tim mentioned. I think it's also important to share the stories of specific programs - and teachers - having an impact on the drop out rates.

I have a hero in my district: an computer animations teacher at one of our high schools with changing demographics and escalating drop-out rates. The class is run like a business. Students make animations for actual businesses. They come in before school, they work through lunch, they are still there after school. They want to know about career opportunities in computer animations. Teacher Shawn Sullivan shows them the college career path, often redirecting them to take their high school English classes seriously, to take the next level in Algebra, and to sign up for Physics.

I'm not sure how we clone teachers like Shawn (grants maybe?), but not only is he helping curb the dropout rate on his campus, he's also addressing the employability issues in today's knowledge-based economy.

After reading Michele's post and the insightful comments, I'm making a commitment to start collecting the success stories - along with the research pieces.

Go get 'em! Just this weekend I read EPE's report, Cities in Crisis, released April 2008. In the 50 largest U.S. Cities, 50% of high school students graduate, including Philadelphia.

Compounding this statistic is a new study by researchers at Rice University and the University of Texas-Austin finds that Texas' public school accountability system, the model for the national No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), directly contributes to lower graduation rates: "Losses of low-achieving students help raise school ratings under the accountability system."

I personally don't see a problem with gifted kids dropping out, getting a GED, and starting college early. I knew several kids in HS that did just that. I think our education system might be better if we dropped this mentality of "everyone MUST finish!" and started looking at ways we can serve exceptional kids outside the HS system. The money spent serving a small percentage of gifted kids in HS might be better spent offering scholarships so they can go to college early.

I find this to be a peculiarity of humans- maybe Americans- that just because you start something you should finish it, even if it does not work for you. I see it with food all the time, and books, etc. Life is too short to stick with something that is not working.

As to your post, I'm sure the gifted kids that drop out make a small percentage of that 20% that are projected not to graduate. But it points out the flaw in such statistics- it doesn't take into account the nuances of the individual situations.

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