Frontline's 'Dropout Nation' Shows What It Really Takes to Turn Around Schools

10/03/2012 09:00 am ET | Updated Dec 03, 2012

If Houston Superintendent Terry Grier could have seen PBS Frontline's "Dropout Nation" before gambling $61 million on his Apollo 20 reforms, would he have pushed test-driven accountability? Grier is shown questioning the ethics of his critics, but the documentary on Houston's Sharpstown High School clearly illustrates why Grier's blame-the-teacher solutions can't work.

PBS showed a reality that is lost on data-driven "reformers." Social scientists have documented the primary importance of socio-emotional factors and the need to build trust before academics can improve. And that takes patience. One at-risk student, Lawerence, complained that Mr. G., the principal, "be trippin'." He later broke down crying as he described the burdens he carried to school. Perhaps symbolically, the outburst that ended Lawerence's high school career was sparked by his resistance to taking a low stakes standardized test.

Sparkle, a young mother, said, "I know I've been missing school days ... (but) I believe in myself." She then explained, "School and life are two different things, " and "I want to be an obstetrician." Sparkle later articulated the documentary's key theme by explaining her trust issues and why she kept pushing away the educators who tried to help her.

A star athlete, Marcus, couldn't make the one-block walk to school. The only leverage for keeping him in school was sports; Marcus said, "To say 'no to football' is to say, 'don't go to school.'" And yet the data-driven "reform" movement is infamous for "curriculum narrowing," "doubling up" on math classes, and reducing the opportunities for students to take electives.

Those sorts of teenagers' attitudes should not be seen as excuses to let educators off the hook. On the contrary, they are expressions of deep pain and they illustrate the psychological barriers that cause educational failure. Their anguish explains why there are no shortcuts. We must invest in supports for teaching troubled kids to be students before instruction-driven reforms can work.

Implicit in Frontline's portrayal of the heroic, though mostly unsuccessful efforts, of the featured educators is the path not taken and which is finally being tried as test-driven accountability fails. Although Grier and other accountability hawks pretend that the answer is in the classroom, instruction to state standards was barely mentioned in the documentary. Although Sharpstown replaced half of its teachers, the story centered on a Campus Improvement Coordinator's, two deans' and a principal's efforts. It thus raises the implicit question of what more could have been accomplished if Houston had originally invested the effort and the $6 million it used in scapegoating teachers into a comprehensive system for supporting students.

"Dropout Nation"'s heroes went on record repudiating the fundamental assumptions of Grier and the accountability hawks. Grier said of failing schools, "We know what to do to fix them." But one dean pushed back tears when acknowledging, "Ultimately, we're not equipped" to make up for the legacy of trauma. As a coordinator grieved the loss of a student, she noted the other 1302 students that need help. The principal admitted that "some kids don't do school." Mr. G did not let such realism undermine his efforts to help Lawerence, who "would not survive at any other school." He "may not survive this one."

Frontline took a light touch regarding the questionable statistics that supposedly documented Sharpstown's success. It parsed the unbelievable numbers that were used to explain away the school's attrition rate. For instance, 32 of the 166 school leavers supposedly went to private schools. The school's data officer did not deny the pattern where the freshmen class is typically about 450, but where only about 275 graduate.

The first year's academic results of Grier's Apollo 20 were modest (improving math, mostly due to hiring of additional tutors, but minimal improvements in reading), but he spun them as a success. The PBS website linked to a report where economic theorist Roland Fryer spun the data as if the dismissal of the majority of Sharpstown's teachers was a smart move. But, it noted that the project's second year results were not impressive.

It should be mentioned that Sharpstown was not as troubled as some other Apollo 20 high schools, and its results were consistent with many other turnarounds. More money and heroic efforts by educators can make big differences for many low-performing low-income students. We still do not know how to scale up efforts for the most vulnerable children in the tough schools, but the successes in "Dropout Nation" point to the best approach. Education is not so much an affair of "the Head," as "the Heart." We need the same commitment to aligning socio-emotional interventions as we have made to coordinating instruction and testing.

Again, nothing in this criticism of Grier's commitment to the blame game should distract from the great work of the featured educators or the good that they did for many students. We cannot fight a three front educational war, however. We cannot continue this war against teachers and also defeat the debilitating effects of generational poverty and trauma, so that improved classroom instruction can rescue our most vulnerable children.