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Attacking the dropout problem at its roots

Posted by Oct 30th, 2009.

It’s great that the Colorado Children’s Campaign and others  are once again beating the drum about Colorado’s little known and ridiculously expensive dropout problem.  In Donnell-Kay’s excellent report there is good analysis of the problem and a great set of recommendations for changing the tide by creating early warning systems and developing new alternative schools to recapture students.

My one critique of this work is that there appears little or no discussion of a root cause of the problem, our big dysfunctional middle and high schools. Any work on solving the dropout problem needs to take a close look at the school system that is generating the dropouts.  A significant number of dropouts could be reduced by having secondary schools where adults were responsible for really knowing kids and supporting every student’s learning.  And by the way, we know this is possible now.

A number of Denver Metro high schools (Westminster, North, West, North, Hinckley, East, Lincoln, etc) have grade 9 to 12 cohort graduation rates of about 50% or less .  Several of these Colorado “dropout factories” are graduating less than one third of the students that enter.

Can you imagine having a hospital that was only designed for one third of the patients to leave healthy? Think of the size of the morgue.  Trying to tweak these monolithic urban secondary school systems that were never intended to have more than one third of kids prepared for college is hardly a winning strategy for building strong twenty-first century economies and communities.

I doubt that we will be able to make much of a dent in the numbers until we come back to the fundamental question of how secondary schools should be designed to support every student to graduate ready for college.  We can’t afford not to follow Donnell Kay’s recommendations, while simultaneously and dramatically increasing our efforts to create new secondary schools where the vast majority of kids stay engaged and get prepared for college.

If we do not address the more fundamental issues of school design and systems in our middle and high schools, we will be do little than add a few band aids to a very broken system.

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7 Responses to “Attacking the dropout problem at its roots”

  1. Mark Sass says:

    Let’s be careful to not demonize all large comprehensive high schools. Some do work. Just as some small high schools do not work. While I am sure size matters (sorry) it is not the end all.

    However, I’ve always wondered if there existed any large comprehensive charter high schools. Any out there? Any reason why they do not exist?

    • van schoales says:

      Mark, you are very right about big and small high schools. There are some very good big selective admissions public high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in NYC as well as Lowell in San Francisco . There are lots of other good big schools in the suburbs like the one I attended, Wootton in Montgomery County, MD.

      East High in Denver is a great urban school if you are a motivated kid and reading at grade level. This was true for Manual when there was busing. Manual sent more kids to the Ivies than nearly any other public high in Colorado in 80′s. The problem is that big comprehensive high schools don’t work very well for kids entering the ninth grade below grade level. They are dependent upon having highly motivated kids with basic academic skills. They are not designed to personalize or dramatically accelerate learning for struggling learners. ‘ve yet to find a big urban school with open enrollment that serves 75% of their kids well, meaning they stay in school and graduate prepared for college.

      In terms of Charters, there are some big suburban high school charters that do well but they are rare probably because there is less of market for them. I’ve not heard of a big urban charter that does well. Nearly every high performing urban charter is designed with a 100-150 student 9th grade cohort so all the students can be known. This seems true regardless of the school design whether more traditional or progressive in education philosophy. These high performing charters are also often configured to have a connected middle school so that kids are prepared and not lost in the transition to high school.

      • Mike Galvin says:

        Van, I think your point is well taken regarding the “root cause” of many of our school challenges. It seems like we have a hard time focusing on what both research and our own experiences tell us can help schools: a focus on high quality learning and student engagement; and an increased level of personal and emotional support for students that results from intentional efforts at improving relationships.

        In my opinion, Colorado’s reform organizations seem to focus pretty much on policy and the structural components of schools. There seems to be little effort to understand the successful “outliers” in public education; analyzing their efforts and approaches, and replicating them. I would cite Emily Griffith and Beach Court Elementary as two prime examples. There are many others, often ignored even in their own districts, because to recognize their uniqueness and success would be, in effect, a gross violation of current public school cultural norms.

        Colorado’s Race to the Top application appears on track to follow this sort of politically correct solution set. As a state, we will propose charters, alternative schools, new standards, new evaluation systems, etc. etc. etc etc., most of which have failed in the past, and none of which address the challenges of the real systemic cultural change we need. Talking about relationships has been politically incorrect in Colorado for several years, but the fact is, relationships among teachers, and between teachers and students in these “dropout factors” is truly pathetic and must be addressed. Thanks for talking about it.

        Many of us working in the field of school improvement have seen how some of the strategies you have mentioned can and do work. It’s discouraging to see our leaders continue to focus on policy and structural change, both of which I believe are low efficacy change levers regarding the prevailing public school culture.

  2. van schoales says:

    Mike, I agree with you that we need to much better ‘understand the successful “outliers” and replicate them.’ I’m interested in what you and others would suggest about replicating schools like Beach Court, DSST and West Denver Prep in the context of our Race to the Top application.

    • Mike Galvin says:

      One thought would be to set up some kind of accelerated knowledge management system whereby we could collect information on these “beat the odds” schools (as McREL calls them) regarding leadership styles and focus, administrative practice, central office policies, etc. Then, as we identify practices associated with success, we could develop leadership learning and coaching that actually bears a relationship to success in the real world. I believe the training should be for leadership teams, not just administrators.

      My (somewhat) educated guess would be that outliers have a distributed, fairly flat leadership profile with a high level of consensus around both school goals and methodology as well as a highly developed focus on teaching and learning. Same goes for central office support of schools. To create this culture, leaders need great capacity in building relationships, a factor totally left out of our state’s conversations. It seems we appreciate this talent in those who happen to have it, but don’t think much along the lines of developing it as a leadership skill.

      My experience with the Race to the Top process makes me think that Colorado lacks a theory of action for school change and RtT. The process of collecting input from the four groups was interesting. No vetting, just collecting. As far as I could tell, there were no criteria regarding a research base for the opinions that were collected. If someone threw out an idea, it was “listed”. The source of many of the ideas was often those who have been deeply involved in creating and maintaining the system that’s not working. I worry that we’re missing a huge opportunity to do things truly differently. I’m not ready to give up on public schools and think that with the right leadership they can be turned around (even with existing staff).

  3. Kathy Hansen says:

    One thing that I’ve hoped (unsuccessfully) to see squarely addressed is the progress from K-6 into the higher grades. Some kids in “middle school” and beyond still sleep with Teddy, while others are savvy, sexually-active smokers. Until that point, kids seem to be relatively balanced in social, and probably academic, status — but from then on, dropping out appears relatively inevitable for a certain number, specifically the latter group.
    The whole 12+ age group ought to be educated according to those kids’ individual needs, not merely their grade level. If we could sort them better, it might cost a lot less than providing extra services to those who are simply not among their peers in any way other than their chronological age.

  4. Mark Sass says:

    Van , you mention that research says that “motivation” is the key factor to success in high schools, along with reading at grade level. Is student motivation that much higher in suburban schools? Is motivating students easier at a small school level versus a large school level?

    I think it is important to differentiate between intentional non-learners (lack motivation) and struggling learners. Regardless of the size of the school, these two types of students need to be identified and have the appropriate resources allocated.

    I worry that a focus on the student as the variable versus the instruction as the variable, allows educators to point the fingers at the student and not themselves. This allows for an easy out, regardless if you are in a school of 500 or 2500.

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