Wednesday, June 21, 2006

PESPD'S Myth # 4: All High School Aged Kids Should Be Encouraged to Stay in School

"Stay in school!" I don't know how many times I've heard this over the years. I've heard it on public service commercials on TV, and I've heard it from politicians and other prominent citizens. It's another saying that sounds very good, and for most high school aged kids, it's reasonable advice. The problem is that for many of the young people to whom this saying is most intended to be addressed, it isn't.

Before I go on, I should say that I recognize that in many places the drop-out rate is very high, and that is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed. The causes need to be examined, and solutions need to be found. We need to find ways to encourage more kids in those areas to care about their own educations. But the solution definitely is not to simply tell kids--or worse, to force kids--to stay in school. Being in school definitely has value for any student who is willing to make an effort and follow reasonable rules, but some students aren't willing to do those things. For those students, being in school is of very little, if any, value, and they become real threats to the education of other kids.

A few years ago, we had a student in our school who got into trouble with the law, and was ordered to attend school regularly as a condition of his probation. This might have been beneficial if there had been some performance standard attached to this condition, but there wasn't. I'm sure the judge and the probation officer assumed that anyone who attends school will pay a reasonable amount of attention, do a little homework, and do some studying for tests. They assumed wrong! As it turned out, this young man would frequently be found roaming around our hallways during school hours. When asked if he wasn't concerned about how this might affect his probation, the young man answered, "The judge said I had to go to school. He didn't say anything about being in class."

This would be bad enough if the only student being effected was the wandering student, but that is not the case. Kids in a school affect other kids. At the middle and high school levels, peer relationships become extremely important. Many kids care much more about their relationships with their friends than their relationships with any adults--even their parents and especially their teachers. Any time a motivated student moves into our school district, I feel good, because I know that student might cause other kids in our school to become more motivated. On the other hand, every time an apathetic or disruptive student walks into our school, I know that this kid might lead other kids in our school astray. It seems to me that judges and policy makers have no recognition of this.

For example, during our last school year we had a rather nasty incident take place involving a couple of our students, and they ended up being sent to a "training center." I had both of the young men involved in my classes. The first was constantly a major problem in the classroom. He rarely did any work, and I learned very early that I could never turn my back on him. There were many times that I wondered to myself, "Why is he even here?" Some students were entertained by his antics, however, and he seemed to possess a certain amount of charisma. The second young man involved started off very poorly in my class, because he was not naturally gifted in social studies. He was a quiet kid who never bothered anyone in class, and he plugged away, so that by the time he was sent away, he was earning a solid C in my class. He had definitely earned my respect, and I felt good about his progress. Although I'm still a little unclear about the incident that got the two students in trouble, my guess is that if the charasmatic troublemaker hadn't been around, the second young man would never have gotten involved. In public schools, we seem determined to save them all. By trying to do that in this case, I think we ended up losing a student that we didn't have to lose.

I really believe that all high school students should make a choice. They should either commit themselves to trying to be successful, which means making an effort and being willing to follow reasonable rules, or they should leave. If they choose to leave, we should respect that decision. Celine Dion dropped out of school when she was twelve years old, and she hasn't done too badly. When asked about it, she said she hopes her own children will do well in school, but she also said that she believes school isn't for everyone. Maybe she's right. I mean after all, would it have better if she'd have been forced to stay in school?

Rather than forcing or even encouraging kids, who don't want to be there, to stay in schooI, wouldn't it make a lot more sense to make it clear to them that if they ever decide they've made a mistake, we will welcome them back? Time Magazine's "Dropout Nation" featured one student who did just that, and ended up doing very well. I would be all for programs that would encourage dropouts to do follow his example. Chicago had a such a program a number of years ago that was featured on "60 Minutes" and it seemed to be working. There was actually one situation in which a mother was in a high school class with her daughter. I don't know if the program is still around, but I think it was a great idea. I can think of no better example for some of our young people than to have someone in their twenties who had dropped out of school, found that it's a lousy way to go, and is now showing up for all his classes, doing assignments and studying for tests.

I don't know about other teachers, but when students are willing to make an honest effort, I don't care how old they are or what their backgounds are, I'd love to have them in my class. But if I have kids who have made up their minds that they don't want to be there, or they want to be there for the wrong reasons, there's really not much I can do for them.


Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

i like the idea of having an "adult learning" environment in high school. i don't think school is for everyone, but oftentimes people realize too late that it's almost essential. as you said, what a better example for impressionable kids than someone who's realized the error of his or her ways and is returning to high school...

6/21/2006 2:40 PM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

I don't know this student, but perhaps he would have done better in an alternative school environment - where he could get one-on-one attention. I've seen students with a pattern of behavioral issues do well there.

I agree that the court should have thought this through better. At the same time, I would like to think that the school would have engaged in conversation with the student's probation officer (PO) and some folks within the district who are savvy at problem-solving when it comes to these types of students.

Teachers should not have to shoulder this responsibility alone. Situations like the one you describe are best handled as a team effort, I think. And that team should include the parents.

I think the judge should have thought this through better. I'm sure that the PO had as little to do with the judge's decision as the school.

As I've commented in another post, I really don't think kids go to school to fail.

BTW, Celine Dion did well, but most young people will never know that kind of success. Besides, even someone like Celine needs a good basic education if she's going to keep her millions.

When Tina Turner's marriage to Ike Turner, her band partner and svengali ended, she suddenly found herself cleaning houses for people like actress Ann-Margaret. Fortunately for Tina, she had a jewel of a friend in Ann-Margaret and enjoyed an incredible career the second time around. How many people get second chances like that?

Sometimes we have no choice but to let students go. With that, I must agree. However, bear in mind that without the proper guidance, many students won't pursue adult education as an alternative - which, by the way, I regard as an excellent Plan B.

Even so, I think that we should do everything we can to engage students before it gets to that point. I still maintain that no student comes to school to fail. And it's been my experience that many kids drop out of school and realize later that it's a mistake. But either they don't have the option of coming back, or they feel that they've screwed up their life to the point that they can't bounce back. I've seen it happen way too often.

I love the mindset you display in your last paragraph. Unfortunately, in school districts where I live (St. Louis), teachers don't have the last word in taking a student back.

Finally, let me say something this is supported by research: White kids stand a better chance of "making it" after dropping out of high school than black, Latino and Native American students. Until the playing field is level in the real world - and it isn't - all students should make dropping out their last resort.

According to The Education Trust, the typical 17-year old black or Latino student has the skill level of the typical 13-year old white student. This has nothing to do with ability.

The United Negro College Fund is right: The mind is a terrible thing to waste.

6/21/2006 3:09 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous, our agreement lately has been amazing, and I hope you're still keeping those little kids in line--especially the boys!

DCS, although you have more confidence than I do that troubled students can be turned around, I really don't think that you and I are that far apart. Although you are probably right that no student comes to school with a desire to fail, I do think there are too many who come with no real desire to succeed--at least not in the way we want them to succeed. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know when I say that the social aspects of school are more important to a lot of kids than academics. Unfortunately, some kids' identities get tied into being the troublemakers--being the ones who will do the most outrageous things. I know that you think that a lot of these kids can be worked with, but I feel like we often end up doing too much damage to other students in the process. (Like the quiet student who ended up being sent to a "training center.") It's not that I hate these kids either. I now have a wonderful relationship with a girl I got kicked out of my class about ten years ago. She works at a place that I frequently do business at in town, and I really like her, and I think she likes me. But as a student, she was totally screwing up one of my classes, and that's why I wanted her out.

Regarding your statistic dealing with black and Latino students, you have me at a disadvantage. Our district has a significant number of American Indian and Asian students, but during my career, I've had a whopping total of two African-Americans. One was an average student, and one was the student council president of an otherwise all-white school. You could probably write a book on this, but I'm wondering what you think are the main reasons for the skill level differences that you mention.

6/21/2006 7:24 PM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Without a doubt, teaching is more complex than it used to be. It can also be full of frustrations.

The life of a student and parent are also more complex. My daughter's former principal told me that he believed students and parents deserved college degrees by time the students graduate from high school! That's because of all the "stuff" students and parents have to deal with now.

Current company excluded, I believe that public education in general has become stagnant. Many teachers are resistant to change. Many teachers also believe that you can teach today's kids like our generation was taught. In addition, I know teachers who don't understand the importance of being culturally literate. For instance, they don't take the time to learn more about the Native American culture, even though they may have a large number of Native American students in their classroom. Or a teacher in a district where 80% if the students received free or reduced lunches doesn't take the time to understand challenges faced by low-income families.

I believe that many troubled students can be turned around because I've seen it happen. Kids who do turn around tend to have an ongoing relationship at school with an adult. It may be a teacher, a guidance counselor, a principal or a teacher's assistant. A lot of research bears this out.

Today, more so than with our generation, students have parents who are too caught up in themselves to spend a lot of time with their kids. Many parents will throw money at their kids instead of spending time with them. In this age of high divorce rates, many students are caught between bickering parents. Some kids who have authority problems have parents who don't respect authority.

I've seen many teachers remain in the classroom, even though it's clear that they burned out years ago. In my personal opinion, today's society doesn't treat children well. It's no wonder many of them have behavioral problems.

Many kids will respond positively if they know you care about them. They also can tell when teachers don't respect them. Of course, we will never get through to all kids, which is the point of your post.

Teaching today's kids takes a lot of energy, creativity and prayer. I admire teachers who keep up with the research. Education Week, the Public Education Network, and the National Education Association offer great resources. I also recommend checking out the website for the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

This has been a great topic for conversation!

6/22/2006 3:18 AM  

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