President Obama recently outlined his “get tough on failing schools” plan at an America’s Promise Alliance meeting. The organization, which was founded by Colin Powell and his wife Alma, is a collaborative network that provides assistance to volunteer groups working with children and youth. In his speech, the President once again called for action in the area of education reform, citing the dropout problem in the United States has great consequences for the economy of the country, as well as a detrimental social impact.
Speaking in terms of dollars and cents, the White House fact sheet on high school dropouts reveals startling numbers:
- 7,000 students drop out of high school daily
- 1.2 million teens leave high school before graduating every year
- the nation’s overall graduation rate is about 70%
The methods used for calculating these numbers do have their flaws. They don’t take into account that students in metropolitan areas frequently shift from school to school, which makes it hard to keep track of graduation rates. And students who later return to school, or obtain a G.E.D, aren’t counted at all. Nonetheless, U.S. dropout numbers are sobering.
What’s even more thought-twisting is another bit of “trivia” the White House fact sheet felt compelled to include – dropouts are costing the government and the economy a lot of money.
Every year $3.9 billion in potentially taxable/spendable earnings are thrown away by kids who don’t finish high school. Every dollar a young person doesn’t earn depletes the U.S. Treasury and submarines the American GDP.
Personally, I could get behind education reform with more enthusiasm if the economy wasn’t invoked every time someone in the administration gave a speech on why reform is so urgently necessary. I’d like to think my daughter, her peers, and all the children I’ve taught as students, were worthy of an education for their own sakes, as opposed to being some sort of economic investment for our Uncle Sam.
Perhaps that’s just me?
Obama’s plan for dealing with dropouts rests on the idea that failing schools are at fault. The plan, which is not that dissimilar from the one proposed in George Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is multi-optioned and aimed primarily at the nation’s poorest children who account for a majority of high school dropouts.
Unlike NCLB, which was basically unfunded, the President’s plan will provide $900 million for school turnaround grants. Schools will be targeted on the basis of low graduation rates and low test scores.
The four of the available options for reform include:
- Turnaround – firing the principal and half the staff
- Restart – firing the principal and turning the school over to a charter/outside management
- Transformation – firing the principal and then implementing steps that would increase teacher effectiveness and increase learning time (longer day or school year)
- Closing the school and reassigning the students to new schools.
There isn’t much credible data on the effectiveness of any of the reform options in this new war on dropouts. In fact, the New York City Department of Education has been closing failing schools and the early returns seem to indicate the students are simply being relocated to other failing schools, or those on the brink of failure.
A few states are bucking Obama’s call for college-ready graduates in favor of systems more like that of the U.K. or several Asian countries. There, pilot programs are designed to graduate students from high school after the 10th grade, funneling those teens into vocational training at community colleges.
As a former teacher in a dropout prevention program, I know there are few easy fixes for this complex problem. The President acknowledged in his address that the education of the nation’s young is not just the government’s problem to fix. He said parents, business leaders and non-profit organizations need to step up and pitch in, too, and I agree. Expecting schools, alone, to combat the issue of dropouts hasn’t worked so far.
Recently I had a long conversation with a teacher friend whose middle school has been on the NCLB watch list for several years. She expressed her frustration with the top down approach to “fixing” her school. To her, the issue is always about what is best for her students – her “kids.”
“Why don’t they ever ask us?” she wanted to know. “What don’t they let us really teach?”
A good question. Perhaps it’s addressed in the finer print of the President’s plan.
But what do you think? What should/can be done about failing schools and dropouts? Is your child attending a school that is failing? How is your school district reaching out to dropouts or potential dropouts? And what do you think of the President’s reform plan?