Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Politicians, please be careful when fighting the dropout problem!

Chicago has just passed a very well meaning law that I think is a bad idea.

Driving a car ranks near the top of many teenagers' wish lists; school, for some, doesn't make the list at all.

So this fall the secretary of state's office and state education officials will try to use that desire to get behind the wheel as leverage to keep more of them in the classroom.

A state law that went into effect July 1 will revoke the licenses of students who have more than 18 unexcused absences from school, are expelled or drop out.

It's part of an effort to stem the statewide dropout rate, which topped 24,000 students last year. The number has declined from more than 36,000 five years ago, but education leaders and lawmakers think the new law can help bring it down further.

The problem with this policy is that its sole purpose is to keep kids in school. Forcing high school kids to simply "be in school" when they don't want to be there does no one any good and it probably does a lot of harm to many other kids who want to be there and want to get an education. I wish that courts and legislatures would learn that any time they tell kids that they must be in school, they need to include some sort of minimum performance standard.

A story I used last year in a post illustrates this point better than any I've ever heard. A few years ago we had a student who was ordered to be in school as part of his probation. Instead of going to his classes, the young man would frequently wander our hallways, where he would get in trouble and eventually be brought to the principal's office. Finally, someone asked him, "Aren't you concerned about how this might affect your probation?" The student's reply: "The judge just told me I had to be in school. He didn't say anything about going to class."

I'm all for encouraging kids, or for that matter people of any age, to get an education. I'm sure that that is what judges and legislators who want to force kids to stay in school believe they are doing. But they're wrong! Judges and legislators are generally people who did reasonably well in school, and they're acting according to their past experiences. They assume that anyone who is in school will pay a reasonable amount of attention, do some of the assignments, and get something out of their classes, because they did. They don't understand that some kids in school make no attempt to learn anything in their classes, and they don't understand that if those kids are disruptive, they can make it much more difficult for their classmates to learn.

I must admit that I cannot recall ever shedding a tear over any student I've known who has dropped out. I have never seen dropouts as "victims" of our education system, as so many seem to. When it comes to dropouts, the only people I've seen as victims have been the kids stuck in classes with them before they dropped out. Our school has never had a very high dropout rate, so maybe that's part of the reason I see things the way I do. Maybe I would look at things differently if we had a thirty, forty, or fifty percent dropout rate, but I really believe the principle is still the same. Education is an opportunity. It is of great value when someone is willing to grab it, and make the most of us. It is of little or no value for those who aren't.

Before you conclude that I am simply a heartless educational Neanderthal, I want to make it clear that I am all for allowing dropouts back into school if they ever make the decision that they really want an education. Chicago had a program like that a number of years ago that was featured on 60 Minutes , but I have no idea if the program still exists. The 60 Minutes program featured a mother who was in her early thirties who was attending classes with her sixteen-year-old daughter. The young adults featured on the program seemed to be doing well, and that doesn't surprise me, because they had made the decision that education matters. When that happens, we can help people--I don't care how old they are.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree heartily with what you wrote here.

However, you should fix the second-to-last paragraph. It's "principle", not "principal".

7/26/2007 5:59 AM  
Anonymous Roger Sweeny said...

As one of my junior high teachers said, "the principal is your pal."

7/26/2007 9:09 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thanks for the help, guys. Nothing worse than mixing up your princip(a)l(e)s.

7/26/2007 9:21 AM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

I really do think we need to look at mandating school beyond a certain age level. Some kids will not understand the value of their education until they are forced to work at low paying jobs. Others' have the desire to do something besides traditional high school (like a trade school) and yet, we insist that they do the one-size fits all approach. It is beyond ridiculous.

7/27/2007 9:15 AM  
Anonymous Betty said...

This post reminds me of a complaint I had when my kids were in school. When they were in regular classes, they always came home and talked about kids who caused problems in class. This seldom happened when they were in advanced classes. It really isn't fair to the kids who want to learn when there are students who don't want to be there and keep the teacher from teaching.

7/27/2007 2:41 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ms. Teacher, I'm sure it won't surprise you when I say I agree with you. I'm not sure what the age should be, but I know it's earlier than 16. If an adolescent doesn't want to be in school, there's not a lot we can do for them.

Betty, you're right about the kids in regular classes being hurt, but the kids who really get burned are those is basic classes, because that's where all the disrutpive and apathetic kids tend to get thrown. That's unfortunate because there are low ability kids who do want to learn, but very often the environment of the classes they're in makes it impossible.

7/28/2007 3:13 AM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

Dennis, responding to your comment to Betty, you are absolutely correct. When I taught my intensive block last year using DI, I had one student who was placed in my class who didn't belong there. We had a new teacher on staff who couldn't handle him in her class, so my principal made the decision to place him in my three hour block class. Lucky me!

So, I had the "pleasure" of having a student in my classroom who didn't need the intensive curriculum for three hours bent on disrupting the learning of other students who for the most part wanted to learn!

7/28/2007 8:58 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ms. Teacher, I feel pretty strongly about that because I have taught a basic class for about ten out of the last twelve years. Most years, we screened out the troublemakers, and the class went very well. The kids in it were able to be successful; they enjoyed it and so did I. However, there have been years when we either didn't screen those kids out, or we did a poor job of it, and those classes were nightmares. When I'd see the kids from those classes in the hall who actually wanted to learn, I didn't even want to look at them. I was that embarrassed. We are really doing those kids a disservice when that happens.

7/28/2007 12:23 PM  
Anonymous Laura said...

While I generally support your push for the teacher's right to boot the troublemakers, I hold that there are likely to be some positives to this law. I don't think it'll keep significantly more of those hall-walkers in school than truancy laws and provisions for their parents to get their monthly check. Perhaps it is coming from a rural school that makes me say this: those kids would just walk until they were 18. And gripe, of course. Oh, and drive without a license as they'd been doing for years anyway.

As for lowering the dropout age, I do NOT think that is a good idea. So few kids have any idea who or what they are before then (not that they know at 16, of course). It's why I oppose the European "gymnasium" system: how many average 14 or 15 year olds know where they want to go in life? Exactly how much of a chance have they had to see the big picture? I know I wasn't looking more than a week or 2 ahead at that age, and I was like those judges and policymakers you described who, for years, expected school time equaled learning.

7/29/2007 8:06 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Laura, you may well be right on the dropout age. It's tough for me to sit here and argue that 13 and 14 year olds should be allowed to make that decision. Maybe alternative education is the answer, but in our district, we only have that for high school kids, and we have some kids in our middle school who are absolutely horrible. (We have five seventh graders who failed every one of their classes--you can imagine what they're like.) Some of them may well drop out before I get them, but they'll do a lot of damage in the meantime.

7/30/2007 5:19 AM  

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