Sunday, July 17, 2005

Falling Through the Cracks. Landing in the Streets.

I read this article yesterday, written by Michael Janofsky, The New York Times.

Students Say High Schools Let Them Down
Findings of New Survey Made Public During Meeting of Governors
DES MOINES, Iowa (July 15) - A large majority of high school students say their class work is not very difficult, and almost two-thirds say they would work harder if courses were more demanding or interesting, according to an online nationwide survey of teenagers conducted by the National Governors Association.
The survey, released on Saturday by the association, also found that fewer than two-thirds believe that their school had done a good job challenging them academically or preparing them for college. About the same number of students said their senior year would be more meaningful if they could take courses related to the jobs they wanted or if some of their courses could be counted toward college credit.
Taken together, the electronic responses of 10,378 teenagers painted a somber picture of how students rate the effectiveness of their schools in preparing them for the future.
The survey also appears to reinforce findings of federal test results released on Thursday that showed that high school seniors made almost no progress in reading and math in the first years of the decade. During that time, elementary school students made significant gains.
"I might have expected kids to say, 'Don't give us more work; high school is tough enough,' " said Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat and chairman of the governors association, which opens a three-day summer meeting here on Saturday.
"Instead," Mr. Warner said, "what we got are high school students actually willing to be stretched more. I didn't think we'd get much of that."
The governors' survey was conducted as part of the association's effort to examine public high schools and devise strategies for improving them. Mr. Warner has made high school reform his priority as chairman of the association. His term ends on Monday, when Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Republican, is scheduled to succeed him.
While a vast majority of respondents in the survey, 89 percent, said they intended to graduate, fewer than two-thirds of those said they felt their schools did an "excellent" or "good" job teaching them how to think critically and analyze problems.
Even among the remaining 11 percent, a group of 1,122 that includes teenagers who say they dropped out of high school or are considering dropping out, only about one in nine cited "school work too hard" as a reason for not remaining through graduation. The greatest percentage of those who are leaving, 36 percent, said they were "not learning anything," while 24 percent said, "I hate my school." Experts in education policy said the survey results were consistent with other studies that have shown gaps between what students learn in high school and what they need for the years beyond.
"A lot of business people and politicians have been saying that the high schools are not meeting the needs of kids," said Barbara Kapinus, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association. "It's interesting that kids are saying it, too."
Marc Tucker, president of the National Council on Economic Education, an organization that helps states and school districts create programs that are more tailored to contemporary student needs, said he did not believe that American high schools could adequately prepare students without a fundamental change in how they operated.
Mr. Tucker said American schools had been too slow to adapt high school curriculums to the real-life demands of college and the workplace. Except for that small fraction of highly motivated students with an eye toward prestigious private colleges and state universities, many more students, he said, are under the impression that just having a diploma qualifies them for the rigors of college and the workplace.

The statements made by the students who dropped out of school are words I've heard repeatedly throughout my tenure in the Cleveland Schools when I've tried to talk kids out of quitting school.
It is ironic to me that some of the smartest kids I've ever had in a CMSD classroom have been lost to the street.
We spend an awful lot of time playing catch-up with such a high percentage of students, that many times our best and brightest are bored out of their skulls. The smart kids often discover greater satisfaction hustling a few bucks or getting a good buzz than they do by coming to classes that don't challenge them.
Often they are scheduled to repeat courses they failed, not because they didn't learn the material, but because they missed too many days of school.
It's a Catch-22. In a system with a fifty percent drop-out rate, we need to come up with some new strategies to catch the bright kids who are falling through the cracks to keep them from landing in the street.


Doug Nagy said...

I've always felt that the best way to operate a public school is to have tracks for different ability students. In Mentor, we had 4 different tracks for certain subjects. For instance, in English, we had Honors, College-prep, Regular, and Tech-prep.

Some of my peers would take classes below their ability level to avoid the more difficult coursework. For this reason, there was always a big push from the counselors and teachers to strive for the highest level.

I'm lucky enough to have attended a school with such a variety of opportunities. I'd be curious to know how things operated in Cleveland Public. From your post, it sounds like kids of different ability levels are stuck in the same class. On top of all the other difficulties facing students in Cleveland, that would produce another disincentive.

Mentor's elementary schools were untracked and had students of all abilities in the same classroom. I too hated school during those years because I felt I was never challenged. I'd sit in class bored, wishing I could go home. If I was a teenager and didn't have caring, strict parents, I probably would have.

As a teacher, how do you motivate the brightest without taking time away from the neediest students? The only solution under the current system would have teachers running a track system within each classroom. That seems pretty difficult to do.

marybeth said...


It is hard.
When I notice kids who are particularly talented, I single them out for special assignments. I often have calls for entries come across my desk for art shows or contests that I will not have a whole class participate in since I do have a course of study to follow. These are the kids I also push to participate in some of the projects I have initiated that collaborate with artists and institutions from the community. This year we are going to be working on a video project with the Clevland Institute of Art. I would also like to do more with computer graphics and perhaps get interested kids hooked up with some of the Digital Divide programs that distribute computers to people in the inner-city who cannot afford to buy them. Most of my students do not have PCs at home. I see this is one area where interested communinty members and businesses can make a difference in the lives of students.

Dale P. said...

To also respond to Doug's comments, tracking is a sticky issue. In addition to labeling kids ("I'm in the 'dumb' class" is a comment I actually hear kids say in the halls and classroom), I also think tracking causes teachers to stereotype and form misconceptions about their students depending on what track they teach. For instance, at our school we used to have "6-level" classes created for students who didn't pass proficiencies yet or who were "low performing" according to their previous teachers' analyses. No one wanted 6-level classes. It was a rather common agreement that anyone teaching a full load of 6 levels would be heading for the door by October. In most public schools that track, "lower level" classes (and I want to be cautious about those words) are usually assigned to those teachers with little seniority (which also oftentimes means with little experience). Kids are automatically labeled unmotivated and are thought to be discipline problems from the get-go. So basically you have in a given large comprehensive high school new teachers teaching remedial classes consisting of kids who are labeled "unmotivated" and "discipline problems". To me, these labels and assignments have a huge impact on how teachers view these students and the curriculum. I know because I've witnessed it among my colleagues. Most of the work is silent busywork with very few opportunities for meaningful discussions or rigorous projects, and these teachers are also quick to refer these kids to the office. Sometimes understandingly, teachers with these classes kick into survival mode and simply try to escape in June unharmed. Also, and most important, once a student is labeled a 6-level, it is very difficult to escape from those classes.

I guess my point is that since we've eliminated these classes and incorporated them into our college prep classes, teachers at least have a hard time, initially, sorting out who's who. They also are not as quick to "dumb down" the curriculum and at least are trying to figure out how to make it rigorous for all.

I feel that many kids who say they hate school, already know all this and witness the injustices of a school that labels and tracks. They feel helpless, bored, and fed up. I'd drop out too.

In a perfect world, tracking could make sense from an instructional point of view. It's too bad, however, that other variables get in the mix.

marybeth said...

To track, or not to track...a very good question.
Given the variables: Which will provide the greater benefit? Which does the most damage?
What are the other options no one is looking at, that can keep kids in school?
I have hoticed, over the years, many students whose attendance improves dramatcally when they begin to participate in sports or in the arts. Does "ramping-up" these programs keep kids in school?
I wonder what studies have been done in this area.
My observations tell me this:
When districts treat athletic and arts programs as "extras", as opposed to being integral components of a whole education, you will see students who feel disenfranchised.