Schools don’t cause, can’t cure increase in dropouts

Published 1:14 pm Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dropouts are a problem for schools, given that Mississippi pays districts based on average daily attendance.

But are dropouts a school’s fault?

Do schools create dropouts?

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So says no less an authority than the president of the United States.

“Approximately 2,000 of America’s high schools produce half of the nation’s school dropouts,” says an official statement from the White House.

Note the verb, “produce.”

Not long ago, the word would have been “experience” or “report.” Now it’s “produce” as if guidance counselors everywhere have started holding meetings to discuss how to encourage young people to take their chances on the streets rather than remain in classrooms.

The fancy term for a change in the way people think about something is “paradigm shift.”

Watch an outfielder trot under a lazy fly, bobble the ball and see it fall to the ground. The most common first thought is, “He took his eye off.” If the most common first thought becomes, “The guy needs a better glove,” there has been a paradigm shift.

Last week in a series of appearances, President Barack Obama focused on education, specifically dropout prevention.

A school that continues “to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability,” the president said. Obama then listed a series of “strategies,” including “closing a school for a time and reopening it under new management, or even shutting it down entirely and sending its students to a better school” if there are too many dropouts.

That’s hardly an option in Mississippi. Schools here with the greatest challenges are often in the poorest counties and are often the only schools in the counties. So to remedy the problem of too few attending, the president would close the schools altogether? How would that help?

Here’s the nut: When it comes to the topic of education, Republicans and Democrats alike are nearing the point where everything they propose is ludicrous.

Back in the day before schools became political footballs, educators educated and legislators legislated. There was recognition that what government could provide toward a student’s quest for self-improvement was money for buildings, books, teachers, utilities and transport. The rest was up to the student.

Funds are still pretty much all government can provide, but in response to persistent pleas for the government to do more, elected officials have responded with a paradigm shift: Schools must guarantee student success and failure is the fault of the teacher, the school or both.

No doubt there are some lousy schools in Mississippi and elsewhere in America. There are schools that have dysfunctional teachers and inept administrators. Such schools are failing, as the president said, the students and communities they serve. But even at pathetic schools, is faculty and staff incompetence the reason why students drop out? There may be instances where faculty and staff could work harder to encourage students to keep coming to school, but whether to attend or even to try to pass a course is ultimately a choice each student makes.

A few generations of trying to use government-set tests and standards to identify and isolate bad schools and transform them has been fraught with problems — not the least of which is clouding the perception of what educators can and can’t do. And whether he intends to or not, the president clouds reality further when he insists dropouts are a consequence of “failing schools.”

To his credit, the president’s remarks covered all the bases. He talked about students’ responsibilities to themselves. He talked about parents’ responsibilities. To prove the point about money being government’s key education tool, he pledged another $900 million to enforce his “strategies.”

Every time an initiative such as this comes along, it’s treated like a new idea. Fact is, Mississippi has most recently had its “Get On The Bus”-themed stay-in-school effort. Public and private initiatives have been working for years to turn the tide against increased dropouts, just as they have against teen pregnancies and other mostly self-imposed misjudgments by youths.

To be successful in solving any problem requires a clear and concise study of what’s causing the problem. In myriad reports, young people who leave school before achieving diplomas rarely say it’s because school was too hard or school was too easy or anything else related to the school itself. They most frequently say they think school is a waste of their time.

Find out why they believe that and solutions may become apparent.

Trying to shift the blame for dropouts to schools is delusional. Worse, it will not help a single young person.