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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.