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From Dropout Nation to Graduation Nation?

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We have 15 million high school students, but about one million drop out every year. That's nearly seven percent! This means that approximately one out of every four ninth graders won't graduate high school.

America's Promise, Building a Grad NationToday's report from America's Promise, "Building a Grad Nation," indicates that some progress has been made, but not enough. The report, made possible by Target, calls for a domestic Marshall Plan to address the problem.

I had strong reactions to five points in the report. And if you are too busy to read them all, please skip to #5.

#1: Credit card companies can track us anywhere, anytime, but schools don't have a clue about where their students end up, because states and schools don't count graduates and dropouts the same way. We do have a common measure -- but, the report notes, "The federal government will require the states to use this calculation for the 2010-2011 school year and be held accountable for their progress based on this calculation for the 2011-2012 school year."

In other words, wait till next year!

Anybody else wondering why this is taking so long? Florida got its act together years ago, so why haven't other states followed along? When I was living in California, civil liberties advocates fought a data system, charging that having ID numbers would intrude on the rights of students, even though those numbers would allow academic intervention on a timely basis.

My own hunch is that adults fought data systems because, once they are in place, it's easy to spot the adult failures. Right now in education, mediocrity pays. Information is the equivalent of light shining on a problem, and many adults would rather not have their efforts exposed to the light.

#2 "Grad Nation" notes that "Research shows that potential dropouts can be identified as early as late elementary and middle school with the warning signs of poor attendance, behavior, and course performance."

Education is hooked on the medical model. Apparently we are wiling to pay more for rescue efforts than for preventive maintenance. Why is that? Is it educational arrogance, the hero riding in on a white horse to save the failed kids? Or are we just shortsighted and therefore unwilling to spend a few bucks now to save a lot later on? I think of Midas Muffler's advertising slogan, "Pay me now, or pay me later."

#3 "Districts and schools are experimenting with innovative strategies to engage parents, including utilizing text messaging, establishing parent centers, and recruiting television stations to keep parents informed."

This is particularly maddening because it indicates that school people are still drinking their own Kool Aid about their role vis-à-vis that of parents. Hey, guys, parents are the primary educators. A key part of your job is to enable. That means early homework assignments that involve parents and other adults in the home. In second grade kids could be assigned to "interview" someone at home about the first movie they saw, their favorite food, their best vacation ever, and so on. Similar assignments become written homework in later grades. The same approach can be used in mathematics with a little imagination, always involving parents and other adults in the home. Teachers should write notes to the parents on the homework, and they should make calls (and send emails if that's an option)

#4 The report says the United States still has about 1,750 dropout factory high schools still to be closed, but how these are closed matters greatly. It praises some states, including New York, for their success in closing dropout factory high schools, but let's be wary of unintended consequences. Case in point: New York City has closed a large number of huge high schools, dropout factories all, and established about 250 small high schools. So far, so good. But those replacement small schools did not have enough room for all the students in the closed schools. Think of a perverse game of musical chairs, just 2,000 chairs for 3,000 students. The 1,000 who didn't get into a small school had to be absorbed somewhere, often in an already overcrowded high school. One principal told my colleague John Tulenko that his school received 450 new students -- out of the blue -- on one day!

#5 In the section of what needs to be done, "Grad Nation" leads off with the most critical step, and three cheers for them for doing so.

Start with Early Reading. Dropping out is a process that begins long before a student enters high school. Research shows that a student's decision to drop out stems from loss of interest and motivation in middle school, often triggered by academic difficulties and resulting grade retention. Research also shows that a major cause of retention is failure to master content needed to progress on time, which in many cases, is the result of not being able to read proficiently as early as the 4th grade. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than 80 percent of low-income students failed to score proficiently on national exams in 2009. Half of all low-income 4th graders did not reach the basic level. When children make it to 4th grade without learning to read proficiently, they are being put on a dropout track.

The emphasis is mine, of course. The point is critical, but the language is appalling. Use of the passive voice amounts to an evasion of responsibility. It's very much like No Child Left Behind, phrasing that lets everyone off the hook. It's time to face the facts and speak the truth: When we fail to insist that our most capable teachers be assigned to teach our first graders and second graders, WE are putting our children on a dropout track. That is, WE are doing it, not someone else. That's a choice we are making.

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John Merrow blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared. His forthcoming book, The Influence of Teachers, will be out in Spring 2011.