Fighting School Failure Isn’t Rocket Science

In the US, 30 percent of youth fail high school every year, and the vast majority come from poor communities and populations of color. We must solve this problem.

In the United States, 30% of youth fail high school every year, and the vast majority come from poor communities and populations of color. We must acknowledge that this is a problem of proportions that cannot be solved with tests or scholarships alone.

Only around 50% of African-American and Hispanic kids ever graduate. And nationwide, only 50% of everyone who is eligible to go to college ever does. Of these few, only 50% ever graduate from college. So we’re not just talking about getting a few more kids into college, but about a serious structural problem that requires a serious structural analysis of the causes. Then we can talk solutions.

Unfortunately, a lot of funders fall short of drawing these conclusions.

Over the past 9 years the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made more than $2 billion in grants to help improve high school graduation rates in the USA. Bill Gates himself acknowledges they continue to fall short of their targets. They, like so many others, set admirable targets. In his “Annual Letter” for 2009 Gates suggests our goal as a nation should be to ensure that 80% of students graduate from high school by 2025. The goal has as long a record as the challenge of school failure.

As long as there have been free public schools, the rate of failure has been more or less the same. At different times throughout the 19th and 20th century this has been of more or less consequence because the nature of the economy has changed.

However, the most reliable predictor of student failure throughout history is the background and education level of parents. So in order to solve the problem, you have to look at two things:

How do you replicate the benefits that come from the educational background of parents?

And how can you deal with the absence of these benefits as kids struggle to make it through school?

Here’s where the ethos of school-based service learning, and expansion of national service after college can be the basis of a transformative school reform perspective.

A community can help provide what a parent cannot. In fact, this is critical. Not only can this make a difference in the lives of kids at school, it also addresses the problem that failing students become alienated and all too often end up diminishing their communities. We can mobilize kids in their local communities in ways that affect their school experience and enrich their communities.

Service learning (see last week’s post) is the most contemporary and useful way to re-link the chain of cause and effect. Kids can work in the community and learn about useful ways to connect to community life. They can feel useful: learn skills, learn about learning, and apply these gains to their academic studies. At the same time, they are recognized to be of value, and embraced by adults close to home. Adult support is extremely important. Teachers included. That’s why smaller classes matter.

It goes without saying, that a teacher in a class of 15 students can connect to students and their families much more directly and deeply that a teacher in a class of 40. That’s why reducing class sizes has a proven impact on performance.

The connection between teacher and parents, and students and community, through service learning supervision is of inestimal value. It has been showed over and over, both anecdotically and in studies, that a strong connection to an academically successful adult who cares about academic achievement is extremely significant in waking a student to possibilities that seemed entirely out of reach.

Finally, the assurance enjoyed by kids of well-educated and income-secure families that college follows high school, as night follows day, must be made to all kids. That assurance brings confidence and the daring to learn.

We are asking young people who have been alienated from mainstream opportunity to make a wide and deep transition. They need to feel that the risks they undertake by learning things that are not yet valued by their peers will be a worthwhile route for them.

High school service learning needs to be developed as preparation for post-collegiate national service. In this way school reform efforts can be accompanied by a hard and fast promise that college will be a guaranteed reward rather than the tentative possibility it now is and can encourage responsibility without punitive dismissal, suspension, expulsion, failure and prison.

A system that has failed so many for so long is kept in place in part because youngsters have learned to blame themselves for their failure and the promise of success through education is offered as a personal challenge to escape rather than to serve and rebuild community.

Meanwhile, in popular education debate, charter schools are vying with public schools. But it would actually make more sense to consider the common denominator that makes some charter schools and some public schools more successful than others.

Charter schools were developed in the early 90s as an alternative to public schools. They receive public funding but are freed from some structural rules that apply to public schools. It’s unclear whether they are cheaper or more effective, mainly because there are so many different kinds. However, one thing that holds true is that charter schools are always more effective when they have reduced class sizes – just as gifted children programs, or after-school drama classes also get better results within the public school framework.

Reducing the ratio between students and adults has been thoroughly proven to work in numerous studies. Basically, anything you can do to reduce the student-adult ratio is bound to be helpful, whether it happens through smaller classrooms, individual tutoring or parent attention, and even student-to-student mentoring.

Direct and individualized contact in some form is what students and children need to succeed in our society. So imagine if we made smaller classrooms an axial principle for building successful public schools where sky-high drop out rates are a thing of the past. Anecdotally, we’ve all run into successful people from poor backgrounds who tell you it was all due to ‘one teacher’ who made them feel valued.

We would need more schools to fit more classrooms, and these could be built as part of a public work programs that creates community jobs. This would be a reliable investment in the future of the country. Schools buildings could be deployed to organize group purchasing of everything from gas to food (imagine actual healthy food in the cafeteria!) and the new buildings could help shift us to a greener economy with sustainable design. We’d have to train new teachers and develop a bigger public work force. And if builders, caterers and even teachers were sourced locally, you would simultaneously help rebuild those communities— and in so doing add to the income level and job security of parents.

In our public schools today — with average class sizes that exceed what any sane educator would advise — we are actively discouraging meaningful and direct contact between students and adults— which are accessible through smaller classes.

School reform with frenzied focus on national standards and punitive testing, with funding formula tied up with financial rewards to teachers and students, or blaming teachers and expanding charter schools free of unions, is like trying to repair the upper floors of a building complex resting on a fault line which erupts daily–and its refugees get lost or go to jail. Instead we could, through simple but not inexpensive, means redirect education (for the first time! It’s been rhetorical to date.)to bring about a just and sustainable society.

Colin Greer is president of the New World Foundation in New York. Among his books is A Call to Character (HarperCollins, 1995).