Thursday, October 16th, 2008...9:22 pm

Dropouts - Fighting the Wrong Fight?

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Dave Boliek
CEO, The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning

The studies are legion.  The recommendations plentious.  Dollars spent - phenominal.  Yet after 30-40 years of hand-wringing over “the dropout problem” there’s no real progress; we still lose about a third of our ninth graders to the dropout zone rather than 12th grade graduation.  There are a gazillion reasons cited, but at the core are students who would benefit from completing high school.

Our country is in a gap.  Twenty years ago and more the country’s manufacturing economy was literally built on high school dropouts.  Drop out at 16, get a job in the local factory, buy a car, get married, have a child… all by age 18… and stay in that job for the next 50 years.  This made up the local economy and the inherent job security offset low wages.

Now, those times and jobs are gone.  This country has blasted full-speed into a knowledge-based economy where thinking is valued, not manual labor so much… yet many families and communities have not yet made the transition.  Indeed many families still do not value education. Several studies over the last 15 years, including the most recent “Predicting Success, Preventing Failure,” show strong evidence that dropouts or students who won’t pass their state exit exam and thus won’t graduate can be identified as early as the 4th grade.The 4th grade!

Another project in Philadelphia has isolated elements so that a goodly percentage of dropouts can be predicted accurately in the 6th grade.  And so we continue to pour tens of millions into trying to tutor high school sophomores, juniors and seniors to try to get them through.  Now, let’s be clear no one ever wants to give up on a student.  Educators will do whatever they can as long as they can to help students succeed and graduate… right up to the last minute.  And we must continue that effort for the short term.

But isn’t it time to look into the alternate universe?  Could “dropout prevention” programs be much less needed if on the first day of of a child’s schooling - pre-K, even - the focus was on immersing students in their own learning; using high quality teaching strategies and techniques so that students are engaged in a rich educational experience where the teacher is a guide to learning, not the source of all knowledge?

I’m aware this is a very complex issue, but there are processes that can help identify potential dropouts, as the Carnegie Foundation and Achieve, Inc. wrote in 2006.  Problem is most of the time the prevention effort is applied to the perceived solution without fully understanding precisely which students are truly at risk.

The National Dropout Prevention Center says engaged students don’t drop out. Engagement comes from “Active Learning,” which is the use of research-based instructional strategies.  Just wonder what would happen if the concentration is on the system, not the symptoms.

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