Education

Why 20% of US high schools are dropout factories, and how to fix them

by JS O’Brien

In case you missed it, a recent Johns Hopkins study concludes that 20% of American high schools graduate 40% or fewer seniors than they enrolled four years earlier. The methodology leaves something to be desired. At least some of those schools probably have a high transfer rate. When you take the numbers as a whole, though, it’s pretty clear that there is an unacceptable number of high school students who are dropping out. While some of them will go on to get a GED (which is hardly a substitute for four years of college prep courses), most will live life without a diploma or, worse, without the basic skills needed to hold anything but the most menial of jobs.

I suppose I could go into just how bad this is for society, but why? Anyone reading this knows that, in a society in which income depends increasingly on possessing in-demand skills, having a substantial segment of Americans that don’t have, and cannot acquire, those skills is a bad thing. If the US wants to have more people living in poverty, more outsourced jobs, declining productivity, and outsized crime rates, we’re doing all the right things with public education.

The question, as always, is how to fix the problem. Everyone seems to have an opinion, even Robert Balfanz and John Bridgeland who wrote this particularly vacuous piece for the Christian Science Monitor. Balfanz and Bridgeland assert that surveys of high school dropouts indicate that “they would have stayed on track to graduate if school had been more relevant, challenging, and supportive of their needs.” There you have it. All those future Nobel Laureates dropped out of school because it wasn’t challenging enough. Eureka!!! Why didn’t we allthink of this. Presumably, their solution is to take kids who can barely do long division, or barely read the Sunday comics, and teach them multivariable calculus and Chaucer in the original Middle English.

What’s wrong with Balfanz’s and Bridgeland’s approach is that the intervention they suggest is too late. There was a time in American manufacturing when “quality control” was designed to catch defective products at the end of the assembly line and either fix them or discard them. Naturally, a number of defective products got into consumers’ hands. The Japanese decided to fix the manufacturing process itself, so that few, if any, defective products ever reached the end of the assembly line. Consumers liked that, which is largely why the Japanese kicked American butt in some important American industries, and continue to do so. When it comes to education, we seem to have learned nothing from this experience.

If we want US students to succeed in high school, we’re not going to get there by fixing the product (high school) at the end of the assembly line. We’re not going to get it by putting them into more “challenging” classes in which they cannot succeed. The only way we’re going to turn out well-educated, capable, willing-and-able-to-learn high school graduates is by fixing the educational process from the front end and controlling, measuring, and adjusting it as students move through school.

To simplify things, I’m going to focus on what needs to be done with one skill: reading. Reading is the cornerstone of everything else. If you don’t read well, you won’t write well. You can’t learn science, history, or any other subject very easily, if at all. Even mathematics textbooks require reading, and the best tests (probably) of mathematical reasoning involve explaining, in writing, why you did what you did with the numbers at hand, so that number manipulation isn’t learned simply by rote.

Many people (and maybe most) have the idea that reading is all about deciphering a code. Surely, deciphering that code comes in handy when one encounters an unfamiliar word, but that is not how skilled readers read. Skilled readers see whole words as symbols. They do not read every letter, sounding out every word. This takes practice, which means that learning to read well means reading often. Not surprisingly, reading often is one of the two factors predicting reading level. The other factor, a high comprehension of what one reads, seems intuitive at first, but has a counter-intuitive implication: It is counterproductive to push students into reading material that is at the limit of, or above, their capabilities. Readers progress most rapidly when they comprehend 90% to 100% of the material they read, and while syntax, sentence length, and paragraph length have an impact on reading comprehension, the most important factor is vocabulary. We all have great difficulty comprehending something when we don’t know what the words mean. (If you doubt this, try reading a treatise on medieval armor parts, or try reading Shakespeare without annotation if you are relatively unfamiliar with Elizabethan words.)

Which brings us to the fix. I’m not a big fan of ED Hirsch, but he gets it right when he points out that vocabulary is closely linked to the chances one will ever be a skilled reader. When we have some kids coming to the first grade with 1,000-word listening vocabularies (or worse), and some with 12,000-word listening vocabularies, it’s quite clear that the kids with the larger vocabularies are going to learn reading skills faster than their vocabulary-disadvantaged classmates, all things (like the amount of reading done) being equal. Given all this, here is what I suggest to fix the problem:

  1. Devote more time in elementary education to reading a lot, and reading within one’s level of comprehension (90% to 100% comprehension). Science, history, geography, social studies, and (God forbid) spelling are useless unless a kid knows how to read.
  2. Provide free, government-sponsored daycare/pre-school to children from families with limited vocabularies. This pre-school would focus on reading aloud to children, building listening vocabulary, and teaching early alphabet, decoding, and reading skills. This would build listening vocabularies to acceptable levels prior to entering K-12 education, and have the added benefit of providing free day care to parents who need to find and keep jobs.
  3. Manage classrooms so that those behind in reading receive extra time and assistance, and those who are reading well can learn science, social studies, and the like.
  4. Hold principals’ and teachers’ feet to the fire over two factors: How much their children are reading and how well they are comprehending what they read.

What’s really maddening about all this is that there is good software that will measure students’ time spent reading and comprehension levels. The software generates reports that allow school districts to hold principals and teachers accountable. The reports aid the ability to manage classrooms for the benefit of all children. Getting more time for reading can be done with a simple change in curriculum and focus. All that is lacking is #2, and that will take tax money and political will.

That’s all.

If we fix elementary education for students with inadequate vocabularies, I’m convinced that the high school dropout rate will take care of itself. High school English faculty will be teaching To the Lighthouse instead of The Little Red Lighthouse , and Virginia Woolf instead of the Big Bad Wolf. Mathematics will terminate in calculus instead of “making change.” Colleges will have to expand to accommodate all the new future engineers, poets, scientists, and music theorists who want to attend.

It all comes down to reading. Let’s invest our tax dollars in something that will actually work, getting to children when real good can be done — instead of years too late.

Categories: Education

22 replies »

  1. How about getting government out of the education business altogether?

    Why not stop funding schools with taxes, and let the free market decide?

    Why should the government steal from me via taxes, and spend that money on schools that don’t work? When schools are paid for by taxes, that means the schools get paid even if they don’t get the job done.

    Schools should be subject to free-market competition like everything else. If people weren’t taxed so heavily, they could afford private schools.

  2. Good points, great post. My teacher friends (K-5) complain that most of the lagging kids come from families that don’t really give a damn about education. Their feet are held to the fire by the administrators to get the kids up to minimum standards, while the parents don’t care. Talk about getting it from both sides.

    I personally believe that it’s child neglect if a parent allows education to be swept under the rug.

    Jeff

  3. Reading this essay made me think about “The Wire” and its creator David Simon–particularly his view that efforts to get kids out of criminal lifestyles in high school was too late, because the cultural and social norms that would drive them to bad behavior were already so deeply hardwired by that time that any intervention would be delaying the inevitable at best.

    We’re raising generations of kids to be increasingly less literate, less thoughtful, less critical, and less capable, and not realizing until it’s too late what a horrible nightmare this will cause.

  4. Jeff said:

    I personally believe that it’s child neglect if a parent allows education to be swept under the rug.

    I agree Jeff, but sometimes it’s not just “allowing it to be swept under the rug.” Parents who, themselves, have limited vocabularies and terrible reading skills have no means of passing better vocabularies and skills on to their children from an early age. Even if they want to, they can’t give what they don’t have.

    Most of them are probably beyond help, but their children aren’t. I think that’s where we should be focusing our efforts, on young children.

  5. When I talk to editors in the news biz, I ask them about the weaknesses of entry-level reporters.

    No. 1: The newbies expect to not work weekends and punch out at 5 Monday through Thursday and at 3 on Friday.

    No. 2: Weak vocabularies. They do not have sufficient knowledge of words to make fine distinctions in meaning.

    I see this over and over in entering freshmen: They don’t read enough, and it shows.

    Thanks.

  6. Why should the government steal from me via taxes, and spend that money on schools that don’t work?

    In no way did I mean to imply that all public schools aren’t working, nor did I mean to imply that all teachers, principals, etc. aren’t doing their jobs. I think they’re generally (with notable exceptions) doing a good job with what they have to work with.

    In my school district, we have one high school that consistently turns out scores of kids who go on to the finest universities in the world, but 20% of its students are struggling English learners. The school has 28 AP courses, and any student who maxes out the curriculum can attend the local, flagship state university for free. But that doesn’t help that lower 20%, who take remedial courses and are just trying to get enough skills and credit hours to graduate, IF their parents don’t move on during their high school careers (which happens more often than not).

    This high school is doing a great job, but like physicians who are dealing with diseases they can’t cure, they cannot save everyone.

    Schools should be subject to free-market competition like everything else. If people weren’t taxed so heavily, they could afford private schools.

    In my school district, students can attend pretty much any public school they want, including a number of charters, focus schools, and strand schools. Schools that lose too many students tend to be closed or have their principals and/or teachers replaced. So, this mirrors the free market.

    The problem is that, while some schools have flourished and others have languished, the overall achievement in the school district has remained flat. This is because parents of high-performing students are choosing schools based on standardized test scores, and those scores tend to be closely linked to socio-economic status. In other words, the reason some schools are getting good test scores is because they have good students. The district is simply pushing the good students to the “good” schools, resulting in improved test scores for them and lower ones elsewhere.

    Consumers aren’t choosing by quality of school, but by the socio-economic status of its students.

  7. Denny: You’ll remember this stat, from Spretnak (1997): “In the past 50 years, by one reckoning, the working vocabulary of the average 14-year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to 10,000 words.”

    JSO – yeah, absolutely, and the most painful point you make for me personally is the idea that in order to fix high school you have to start in pre-school. Except for me, it’s always been if you want to fix college you have to start in pre-school. These days the graduating college seniors I see are maybe – maybe – on the level of sophomores, although probably not that. As a college professor it drove me nuts having to suspend college education to conduct remedial junior high language workshops. There are a number of reasons I’m not a professor anymore, and this is way up toward the top of the list.

    Fundamental skills. Building blocks. Right – language is the tool upon which all other things are built, just like education is the core foundation for every other important thing a society wants to accomplish.

    Well said.

  8. JS said “Parents who, themselves, have limited vocabularies and terrible reading skills have no means of passing better vocabularies and skills on to their children from an early age. Even if they want to, they can’t give what they don’t have.”

    I have a couple of friends who moved here from China. I go fishing with them all of the time. They are good, hardworking, proud people from the countryside. They have very limited English, and can’t read. Their three kids are all in college, one in medical school. All of their Chinese friends are expecting the same thing from their kids.

    I agree that the parents(with limited skills) of the kids over here might be beyond help, and do hope that their kids will be able to do better. Aside from the government taking the low scorers away from their parents and shuttling them into an expensive program, I fear that there is little that can be done for those kids.

    I did a little mentoring on the side(and plan on doing it again), and had limited success with 1 out of 3 of the kids who were assigned to me. Limited success is still success, and does make a difference in someone’s life. Perhaps if readers of this site were to join a Big Brothers/Sisters program, they could help a kid. You get more out of it than you put into it, and it only requires a few hours a week.

    Actions speak louder than words.

    Jeff

  9. I have a couple of friends who moved here from China. I go fishing with them all of the time. They are good, hardworking, proud people from the countryside. They have very limited English, and can’t read. Their three kids are all in college, one in medical school. All of their Chinese friends are expecting the same thing from their kids.

    Yeah. It’s not a single factor issue. I know some people like that, too, but I also know Asians who speak nothing but their native language in the home, get DVDs for their kids to watch in their native language, and have kids who are struggling in school. The difference seems to be when the kids started playing with English speaking kids, how often, and what sorts of families those English speaking kids came from. I know two sisters from the same family whose English language skills are as different as night and day. The younger one, who started out in this culture as an infant, is far more advanced, academically, than her sister.

    Aside from the government taking the low scorers away from their parents and shuttling them into an expensive program, I fear that there is little that can be done for those kids.

    Exactly! That’s what I was suggesting, only as a sort of mega-preschool. I think the expense is minimal compared to the long-term costs in GDP, tax revenues, and social ills like crime.

    Perhaps if readers of this site were to join a Big Brothers/Sisters program, they could help a kid. You get more out of it than you put into it, and it only requires a few hours a week.

    My wife has done that, and every little bit counts. But it’s not enough. It’s like sending a squad of light infantry to land on Normandy Beach and march on Berlin.

  10. JS said:
    “My wife has done that, and every little bit counts. But it’s not enough. It’s like sending a squad of light infantry to land on Normandy Beach and march on Berlin.”

    Bravo for your wife. If just 10% of the population were to mentor just one kid each, it would be like sending in a whole army.

    Jeff

  11. Jeff,

    I hear your point, but frankly, if a kid gets past the fourth grade without reading at a fourth grade reading level, the jig’s pretty much up. There are exceptions, of course, but the odds against kids learning to read competently after that time are very long.

    If I were to volunteer anywhere, I would insist on teaching only young children. Triage, you know.

  12. Triage…that’s a fascinating concept.

    I, myself mentored 12 year olds who were disadvantaged. One of them I helped and made a significant impact. The other two…..were dismal failures. The kid I helped was smart, but had no positive infulences. He ended up in the service, and has a good gig on a submarine. The other two had no real intelligence, but plenty of attitude. Their role models were gangsters, or gangstas….as they put it. I plan on trying to take on a tough nut and seeing how I can do, as I hope not to repeat the mistakes I made with the two failures. I’ll have to wait to see how this all plays out as soon as some medical issues with my lovely wife are resolved.

    I agree with kids needing to read at level by 4th grade. Past that is too late in most cases. We read stories to our kid from when he was a year old, and that spurred a decent reading habit.

  13. Jeff:

    Sorry to hear about your wife. I hope everything works out.

    My son spent time being a tutor for Soutside Chicago kids. They were middle school age, and whether he hadn’t the skills to help, or whether they were beyond help, I don’t know. I do know that he left the process badly discouraged.

    Good for you for doing what you can. Keep up the good fight.

  14. You may NOT isolate the school situation from the national situation. We are socially shallower, less informed, totally self-centered, mindless, more religious (having donated our thought processes to our local prophet translator in exchange for critical thought and the arduous work of the examined life).

    Daddy or the Man du jour, is a avid sports fan, not invested in the children he or some other source has spawned. Or worse. . . actually, ususally worse. He loves the titty bar , his guns or the casino as much as the Steelers.

    Momma is desperate to keep someone around, renouncing her maternal authority to someone who might help out with the rent sometimes. Her idea of a weekend outing is the local discount store screaming at the kids from time to time with her hear glued to a cellular. They are not discussing educational reform.

    The kids think Flaming Cheetos are Cheerios, Saw II-XXI is the film realization of life, fuck is the word to use when you can’t think of another (and it’s easy to paint).

    I teach school – 30 years now. I am in a district rife with paper educated people who haven’t got a CLUE. (the degree is just a matter of taking out enough loans to buy the certificate. there IS no minimum requirement, really. get YOUR phd on line.) They are outnumbered only by those who are on the take with public money. whew! No oversight.

    Listen, friends. You won’t get apples from a russian olive tree. I don’t care how much money you throw at it (and into the pockets of your friends or the local bottom feeders). You gotta burn that sucker down to its roots and hope it hasn’t already choked out all the apple trees that USED TO LIVE in the orchard.

    We should be very, very worried.

    About your reading program. . .

    By the way, 6 year olds are not allowed recess because of their “scientifically based” reading block or 90 uninterrupted minutes of shouting out unison letter sounds like a boot camp – no art, no music, often no PE. Your idea of the ideal program is SOOoooo inhumane. You won’t get readers, but you’re going to find you get a new product that you never bargained for.

    Yup, you should be worried.

  15. The issues you raise, JS are all valid and important.

    I also don’t believe for a second that software and testing are sufficient answers to the reading dilemma. Unless you’re going to make sure that every Game Boy, cell phone, and iPod in America have them loaded and that kids can’t access their distractions without doing the exercises.

    There’s nothing wrong with on-line education if it’s done thoughtfully. But, like all education, it requires thoughtful engagement by both instructor and student.

    We don;t just have a crisis in reading, we have a crisis in thinking. Hoop jumping is much easier to create and assess. That’s why we have had NCLB foisted on us as the panacea for our educational ills. America’s chief problem is a lack of thinking. I began to see this in the 1970’s when most of my students could do little more than create versions of things they’d seen on TV when I asked them to be creative….

    I’m haunted by the line from Yeats: “The best lack all conviction/While the worst are filled with passionate intensity….”

  16. Jim – There’s one thing to keep in mind, though, about the crisis in thinking you’re describing.

    You can’t think something if you lack the language skills and vocabulary to describe the thought. So, in some sense, how creative and thoughtful people can be is limited by having the words to describe and explain their creativity.

    I suspect there are people who can work around this limitation in some way or can find new words or ways to explain what they’re thinking, but I also suspect that such individuals are very, very rare.

  17. About your reading program. . .

    By the way, 6 year olds are not allowed recess because of their “scientifically based” reading block or 90 uninterrupted minutes of shouting out unison letter sounds like a boot camp – no art, no music, often no PE. Your idea of the ideal program is SOOoooo inhumane. You won’t get readers, but you’re going to find you get a new product that you never bargained for.

    Hmmm. I’m not sure where I said it was a good idea to deprive young bodies of physical exercise or cut out arts and music out. Nor do I see where I suggest drill and kill approaches like shouting out letter sounds. If you can find where I said those things, I’ll withdraw them. But I don’t think I said those things.

    And why would intensive pre-school, designed to help kids actually have a fighting chance to become lifelong learners who can read extremely well, be inhumane?

  18. We don;t just have a crisis in reading, we have a crisis in thinking.

    Jim, I don’t disagree, but I’m not sure what you’re suggesting we do differently. Frankly, I learned to think by reading and following the arguments of others who knew how to think. As Brian intimates, how does one structure a symbolic argument (as all arguments are) without proper language skills? Thinking is verbal. Yes, there are some helpful rules of logic and knowledge of logical fallacies that clarify thinking, but how can one acquire those things if one doesn’t read well?

  19. Just a quick correction about GED; it is NOT supposed to replace ‘4 years of *college*’, it is supposed to certify HIGH-SCHOOL equivalent skills (my take on it, it is supposed to verify what you ought to know about 5 years after graduating from HS 🙂

    The GED is just a piece of paper, but many people learn a lot while preparing for it

  20. You can’t think something if you lack the language skills and vocabulary to describe the thought. So, in some sense, how creative and thoughtful people can be is limited by having the words to describe and explain their creativity.

    I suspect there are people who can work around this limitation in some way or can find new words or ways to explain what they’re thinking, but I also suspect that such individuals are very, very rare.

    Ironically, I’ve always wondered the opposite–how can people think only in words. There are other modes of thought than language, like the spatial thinking essential to mathematics, physics, and engineering or the aural thinking of musicians. Tempel Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures is an interesting attempt by a high-function autistic engineer to explain her visual thinking to people who primarily think in words.

  21. i just dropped out of high school two years ago because of excessive bullying habits. one my brothers just dropped out last year because of bullying. theres nothing purposely to pick on about just that our father is self employed and he get a substantial amount of money at difernt times such as maybe today he made $5,000 on a job but dont make anything for three weeks he makes$3,000 its just the schools have become an area that bullies like theres no boundries for them therres no punishments and the principals and super intendents of these school were always the best when they were in school so they have no clue what these kids are going throuhg these days. my little sister is only in 5th grade and her classmates call her lesbian just bcause shes close to her best friend they do everything together right now she dont want to finish school. they better do something before these drop out turn to suicides……….!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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