Who's to blame for the Drop Out Rate?

Debra Franciosi, my friend, former mentor teacher, and current associate director of Project CRISS, an education think tank in Kalispel, Montana, turned me on to an education blog called McRel, which disseminates educational research along with analysis. I read some posts and immediately took issue with one of them.

In "Addressing High School Dropout: Taking a Look Inward", David Rease Jr. analyzes some survey data regarding drops outs. The AT&T Foundation's report "On The Front Lines of Schools" examined why various stake-holders in education believed so many kids are dropping out of school. It found that district level personnel blamed principals, principals blamed teachers, and teachers blamed parents, and only the drop-outs blamed themselves.

Rease's conclusion was that we should all take responsibility. "Our dropout crisis will persist until each of us takes a look at those fingers pointing back at us, and identify our own culpability in our nation’s dropout crisis."

Here's where I take issue. I agree with Rease that kicking the blame down the ladder is wrong. I also agree that personal responsibility is a virtue, and self-analysis makes all of us better at our jobs. But, by that same rationale, perhaps the answer to the question of the drop out rate is actually presented in the report itself, and staring at the four fingers pointing back at us is a means to avoid aiming our index fingers in the right direction. In short, maybe the drop outs are right. They are taking personal responsibility, and are, belatedly, performing some self-analysis of their own role in their education. Why should we second guess that?

I know I'm going to sound like a curmudgeon when I start any sentence with "When I was a kid...", but let's face it: If I'd come home and tried to use any of the excuses Rease encourages us to consider when I got a bad grade, my parents would have been aghast, or maybe they would have laughed in my face because they would have been so incredulous. The district level employees were not being properly overseen by their administrators, so I was failing? Ha! My teachers' "lessons were boring and disengaging"? Too stinkin' bad. Admittedly, I have great parents who were willing to "create space, time, and the expectation [I] complete [my] homework", but part of that expectation was that no one was ultimately to blame for my academic achievement or failure except me. The drop-outs in this study have obviously internalized that lesson, and aren't blaming their parents for failing to teach it to them, so let's take them at their word.

Every year, in my Creative Writing class, almost half the kids fail. Is this because my lessons are "boring and disengaging"? Not according to the students. They chose to take the class because they felt it would be the most entertaining of their options for Senior English (composed of various elective courses at our high school). They are there because they expect to be entertained and engaged. But that half of the class fails because they, amazingly, do no writing outside of class. Zip. Zero. Every year I pester them about this. Why, in the name of all that's good and holy, would you choose to take a creative writing class if you have no interest in or intention of writing except when I'm leaning over your shoulder, making you? I've never received a satisfactory explanation from a student beyond "I don't need this credit to graduate." I try to explain, until I'm red in the face, that they are doing themselves a disservice, that they are missing out on the learning by not doing the work, that they are wasting their own time and an opportunity to better themselves. To this, I occasionally receive a downcast glance of something passing for shame, but generally I get shrugs. Have these parents failed to "create space, time, and the expectation [they] complete [their] homework"? In some cases these parents are atrocious, even criminal, but in other cases the parents are wonderful, so this doesn't seem to be the operative variable. Have I not made the class challenging enough? They are failing. I can't make it any harder on them. Have I not been entertaining enough? They picked the class for the entertainment value. Should my principal have mentored me in some way, or given me a stern lecture? If anything, she's been supportive even though, when students do need the credits and I fail them, I make her job harder by creating a scheduling nightmare for her the following year. Have the folks over at the district office failed "to adequately coach, monitor, and evaluate" my principal? What would they have said to her which could have trickled down, through me, and transformed into inspiration for my students? If someone has these answers, that's great, but I have a feeling that if we stare at the fingers point back at us all day long we won't answer these questions.

On the other hand, we could trust the drop-outs themselves. Or my students, who write self evaluations as well as evaluations of the class and of my performance as their teacher at the end of each semester. At the end of each class the ones who fail say they wish they'd worked harder. Instead of navel-gazing, perhaps it behooves us to ask how we, not just as teachers or parents or principals or superintendents, but as a culture, can better communicate this need for more motivation to students before it can only take the form of regret.

Here's the good news and the bad news on that front: I used to get so frustrated by parents who would actively undermine my attempts to motivate their kids when they would tell them "I didn't graduate, and I'm doing fine," or "I didn't go to college and look at me now". I would try to explain, without criticizing the parent, that the labor market is shifting, and that the same opportunities that existed for them will not exist for their child. Well, thanks to a combination of globalization and the current recession, I'm having to make that argument less and less. As much as there will be a lot of losers in this economic climate, and a lot of folks who are punished undeservedly, the upside will be a renewed focus on competitiveness. As much as I worry, as a teacher of the Humanities, that we'll place all the emphasis on math and science, that's a problem I'm willing to exchange for no emphasis on education at all. As we fully engage a global economy, we'll need to re-evaluate the way we carry on our debate about education. Teachers in India don't worry too much about entertaining their students, and parents in South Korea don't worry to much about being nurturing (they beat the crap out of their kids, in fact, which does not lead to improved educational outcomes), but those students will be taking jobs from our students because they came into their classrooms with a different attitude. Our kids will figure this out eventually, just like the drop-outs in the study did. Our job, as I see it, is to help them catch on before it's too late.