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Dropout Nation

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Yes, America is a Dropout Nation.

In his State of the Union address President Obama promised to tackle the dropout rate of American high school students, calling it an "economic imperative if the United States intends to remain competitive in the global society."

"We know that the success of every American will be tied more closely than ever before to the level of education that they achieve," Mr. Obama said. "The jobs will go to the people with the knowledge and the skills to do them. It's that simple."

America's dropout rate has been growing steadily for the last 10 to 20 years and is now at record proportions. The seminal report called The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts funded by the Gates Foundation in March, 2006, said in "each year, almost one third of all public high school students -- and nearly one half of all blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans -- fail to graduate from public high school with their class. Many of these students abandon school with less than two years to complete their high school education."

It has gotten even worse and threatens the stability of the nation's economy. Sadly, then as now as the report noted, "the public has been almost entirely unaware of the severity of the dropout problem due to inaccurate data."

Roadtrip Nation, a relatively small (32 people) non-profit that according to a Hewlett Foundation newsletter provides a "unique brand of career counseling to 100,000 at-risk students," was moved by The Silent Epidemic's finding that more than 80 percent of dropouts said their likelihood of staying in school would have increased if classes had provided opportunities for "real-world learning".

What does "real-world learning" mean.

Roadtrip Nation, as they describe their mission, "develops curriculum and resources for students to gain access and exposure to life pathways that they may have otherwise not known existed." They do this, in part, by training the kids to interview people they hope and believe have answers for them. And the students themselves do this by asking their interviewees why they choose their life's work and what motivated them.

With the AVID program kids learn how to learn. They are taught how to take notes, required to take notes in all their classes and in a special AVID elective each day, talk about what they learned, and why it matters. The WIRC method -- for writing, inquiry, reading and collaboration -- is woven into the AVID formula.

At High Tech High in San Diego, the whole educational experience looks like an art school in disguise -- a remarkable example of art infusion, indeed infusion of the various disciplines where each semester the entire faculty and student body are assigned a topic they work together on and that draws on all disciplines, forcing students to work collaboratively on real world problems.

In other cities in schools across the country, it is art and art infused efforts to make the curriculum relevant. Like the CAPE program in Chicago, teachers, artists school administers and parents work collaboratively to develop and share innovative approaches to teaching and learning in and through the arts.

Such a multidisciplinary approach encourages young learners to see the connections between knowledge in one area to another, between a unit in mathematics and a unit in social studies, or between a unit in science and a unit in language arts. According to CAPE, "This process shows students that such thinking is possible and actually done in the real world."

Leave No Child Behind, STEM and other federal programs to force all schools into teaching to a common standard, "teaching to the test" as it is often called, only inhibit experimentation and limit the creativity and innovation educators want and need.

If Obama really hopes to curtail the dropouts, the Federal government needs to works with the states, the county offices of education, and the local schools districts in the nation to encourage the interdisciplinary courses to be developed, to eliminate the silos, to encourage the Roadtrip Nations and others to develop the curriculum that is "real world", and give kids the courage and confidence they so badly need to make in it the new, global, knowledge based economy.