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Reducing the number of dropouts

March 27, 2010
Dr. James Phares

The high school dropout rate is not as bad as it once was, but it's not as good as it needs to be. A national crisis is looming because we can no longer sustain a work force that is needed to staff higher-skilled jobs.

Hands-on, real-world education is not just for students who others' believe are incapable of handling text-based, literacy-based college prep courses. Education circles, communities and the Legislature talk about solving "the high school problem." We have not moved beyond the talking stages other than to burden students with inflexible pathways, imprison them with time constraints, and basically continue to use models that are out of date and not reflective of the technology use that would actually enhance and expedite student learning.

However, the cruelest reality is that we have grown accustomed in this country and state in all of our high schools to accept that approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of our freshmen students are not going to make it to graduation. Once upon a time, the dropout rate was higher; 50 percent of our freshmen did not make it to graduation in the 1950s and 1960s.

In those days, dropping out usually meant dropping into a manual labor job that provided real-world and real-time training at real-world wages. However, "dropping out" does not mean that in today's economy.

There are six things that we can do to get more students ready to be successful for college and the work world:

1. Expect more of the students in English, math, science and social studies.

2. Blend academic and technical content through challenging, authentic assignments that are linked to real-world situations and problems.

3. Equip students with real, 21st century tools - let them move at their speed of learning.

4. Expect every student to strive to meet standards and reward them when they do.

5. Guarantee support for students who need it.

6. Connect every student to an adult adviser.

These are not cutting-edge ideas. They have been promoted by the Southern Region Education Board for 22 years as keys to improving high schools. But there are hurdles for students along the way.

West Virginia Board of Education Policy 2510 is a massive hurdle for some students to overcome. The redundancy of the curriculum, the Carnegie Unit and 8,100 minute requirements, the inflexible course selection process, the de-emphasis of career and technical pathways and the over-emphasis of high-stakes testing has lengthened four years of high school into an improbability of matriculation for some students.

Researchers have already suggested that multiple pathways to college, career and civic participation must be developed in order to stifle the ascending dropout rate and to increase college and work readiness numbers. This kind of reform is difficult. Blending academic and career-technical education requires ambitious structural changes and defies deep-seated cultural norms.

Kindergarten through 12th grade and post-secondary collaboration must be taken to higher levels. Partnerships with business and public entities will be difficult but necessary to establish.

We can wring our hands about the "Race to the Top" grant and wonder what went wrong. Charter schools, vouchers, standards, assessment, state leadership, etc., etc., etc., but it comes down to this: Are we willing to make the decisions about the things we can control in order to keep those that are dropping out today and dropping into low-end jobs, in prison, or lost on the streets of our towns and cities from doing so? Are we going to continue to tell ourselves that "four out of 10 dropouts" is not that bad? Or are we going to do something about it?



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