Stories & Grievances
Julia Steiny: Face It: Helping All Kids Graduate Requires a Second Shift of Supportive Adults
Of the 20-year-olds who were unemployed during the recent recession, roughly 70 percent were high-school drop-outs. Dr. Robert Balfanz asks, “With no diploma and no work history, are they ever going to work? Every year we (America) put a million kids into that pipeline.” Which leads to prison, chronic unemployment, and reliance on social services. Maintaining this pipeline is not in our national interests, to say the least.
Julia Steiny: Face It: Helping All Kids Graduate Requires a Second Shift of Supportive Adults.
Of the 20-year-olds who were unemployed during the recent recession, roughly 70 percent were high-school drop-outs.
Dr. Robert Balfanz asks, “With no diploma and no work history, are they ever going to work? Every year we (America) put a million kids into that pipeline.” Which leads to prison, chronic unemployment, and reliance on social services. Maintaining this pipeline is not in our national interests, to say the least.
A researcher at John Hopkins University, Balfanz co-directs the Everyone Graduates Center. He also works on Colin Powell’s project, the America’s Promise Alliance with the specific goal of raising the nation’s graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020. Currently, it’s about 75 percent. This means getting 600,000 more kids across the stage each year.
“But if you remember,” he muses, speaking recently at the Rhode Island Foundation, “90 percent was also the graduation target for (the Clinton-era’s) Goals 2000.” We’re not making much progress.
Improving graduation is a hard, hard job.
Still, Balfanz argues that the job is absolutely doable. Read a description of what he calls his “Civic Marshall Plan,” designed to accelerate the little bits of progress made so far. But despite its clear, commonsensical nature, the Plan is dauntingly ambitious.
Today let’s consider one piece of it, perhaps the toughest for most people to swallow. Balfanz makes inspiring suggestions for how schools could become attractive, effective places where kidswant to come and learn. But even if schools achieve such improvement, many kids will still need what he calls a “second shift of adults” to keep them on track.
Imagine a healthy path that reliably takes kids through high school to finishing the post-secondary training they need to thrive in this economy. Balfanz would say that kids on that healthy track have the A, B, Cs – Attendance, Behavior, and Course Completion. They have learned how to get their own butts out of bed, how to stay out of trouble, and how to earn at least a “B” average overall. It’s not such a tall order.
But imagine how easily it is to fall off that track. Many kids have incompetent parents, for whatever reason. Some suffer untreated trauma. Poverty, violence, mental illness and substance abuse might affect either the parents or the kids, resulting in a kid’s school problems. Adolescents get moody and disaffected. Schools themselves might be alienating, harsh, impersonal or dull.
So at any point in kids’ lives, circumstances may push or entice them off that healthy path and into the stream coursing toward the drop-out pipeline.
The second shift, then, are those individuals and agencies standing ready to catch the kid the moment she’s slipping. Someone needs to figure out what the root problem is, and respond with the right support or intervention, at the right scale and intensity. Or she’s gone.
One kid may simply need an encouraging mentor asking after her homework every day. But another needs heavy-duty social services to work with his whole family to get him back. Others may need tutoring, a friend, a father figure, a grief therapist, or someone reliable to give his grandmother her insulin shot during the day so he can get to school. Kids who’ve experienced social or academic failure avoid repeating the horrible feeling of failure by withdrawing effort. “I don’t care and I won’t try.” Someone has to pull them back.
The challenge is massive.
“But the good news,” Balfanz enthuses, “is that this is a giant engineering problem and America is good at engineering.”
How would he have us begin this engineering feat?
Start with good data. No Child Left Behind forced schools and municipalities to build robust data systems, so those systems can help us know where each and every kid is at regarding the A, B, Cs.
A kindergartner’s spotty attendance is a red flag. Middle-school kids getting suspended are surely in trouble. Intervene asap, before the problem gets bigger.
Balfanz gestures wildly, dramatizing the data’s evidence that “by the 6th grade, certain kids are waving their arms and yelling I’m going to drop out.” Two-thirds of incarcerated boys and two-thirds of girls who get prematurely pregnant were, when they were in 6th grade, chronically absent, getting suspended, failing English or math, or some combination.
But, monkey see, monkey do. How many kids have plenty of adults and older kids around them, modeling and teaching the self-management and personal organization needed to pull off A, B, and C?
Precious few. Especially in low-income communities.
“If we don’t have interventions, diagnoses are meaningless.”
So who steps in?
Balfanz says, “Kids need much more than a good lesson every day. A teacher has 20 kids – or 120 – and can be heroic with, like, 5. So how many adults do we need to mobilize to see to it that all kids are getting what they need?”
He doesn’t pretend to have that answer. Yes, AmeriCorps, Scouts, clubs, sports and recreation departments are big contributors. Non-profits and the business communities are stepping up more lately. Still, oceans of kids need basic daily nurturing: “I’m here to help, and I like you.” Only such a personal approach will support a struggling child to develop her own self management.
Balfanz concludes by offering “A Nobel prize to the person who figures out how we get that second shift.”
It’s a profoundly daunting challenge. But I’m sure he’s right.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com.
The Christian Science Monitor | November 23, 2007
More students will stay if school is harder, safer, and more relevant.
Many communities across the nation have just received alarming news – one or more of their high schools fit the profile of a "dropout factory." That means two decades after the seminal report, "A Nation at Risk," jolted the nation to its educational crisis, America can claim almost no progress in raising high school graduation rates.
In many communities, the initial reaction to the latest report card has been denial and even anger. But now is the time for a focus on real solutions, not labels. In a human-capital century, Americans can no longer look the other way. Instead, they must realize why students leave school and use proven strategies to lower the dropout rate now.
In more than 1,700 schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia, less than two-thirds, and often fewer than half, of students graduate year after year, according to federal data recently analyzed by Johns Hopkins University. Half of all dropouts and two-thirds of minority-student dropouts are concentrated in 12 percent of America's high schools. Even heroic teachers and resilient students are finding themselves outmatched by the challenges they face in under-supported schools in high-poverty urban neighborhoods and rural counties.
The consequences of dropping out of school are catastrophic. Dropouts are more likely than their graduating peers to be unemployed, living in poverty, receiving public assistance, in prison, on death row, unhealthy, divorced, and single parents with children who drop out. Dropping out is not just a personal or economic issue; it also undermines the fabric of society. High school dropouts are almost completely missing from the civic lives of their communities. US taxpayers would save $45 billion a year if the number of high school dropouts were cut in half by increased tax revenues and reduced social costs.
A powerful force aims to engineer this massive savings and solve the dropout crisis by listening to and heeding their advice. A broad coalition of educators and business and community groups – including America's Promise Alliance, State Farm, the National Education Association, US Chamber of Commerce, and leading civil rights groups are supporting a 10-point plan and spearheading 100 dropout summits in all 50 states.
Surveys of dropouts, research on proven solutions, and action in some communities paint a hopeful picture. The overwhelming number of dropouts surveyed in the report, "The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts," recognized that graduating is vital to their success. They told us they would have stayed on track to graduate if school had been more relevant, challenging, and supportive of their needs. They point the way toward reform – improved teaching and parental involvement to make school more engaging, a safe and orderly environment, stronger support for struggling students, and schools expecting them to graduate. The What Works Clearinghouse has also identified effective dropout-prevention strategies that meet the highest standards of scientific evidence.
Communities from small towns to large cities are waking up to what works to prevent dropouts. In 2006, a Time cover story made Shelbyville, Ind., the symbol for "Dropout Nation." Educators there responded by providing more accurate data, an alternative school, and a credit recovery program for failing students, parents, and other adults who ensure students get the support they need. In New York City, graduation rates increased to 79 percent in smaller, more college-focused high schools that were opened to replace schools with graduation rates as low as 31 percent.
In a hopeful burst of bipartisanship in Congress, Senators Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina, and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, and Rep. George Miller (D) of California have crafted legislation that provides needed support to fuel innovation and reform to help more students stay on track to graduate in every state.
The Bush administration announced new policies to increase graduation rates in addition to test scores and has put a billion dollars in its proposed 2008 budget to support proven reforms in low-performing high schools.
And the Bill & Melinda Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations have launched a "Strong American Schools" initiative to keep issues relevant to the dropout epidemic – such as teacher quality, rigorous standards, and extra learning supports – a priority for the 2008 presidential candidates.
Eli Flores from South Los Angeles recently asked why no one cared that he and his friends were dropping out. Schools that might resist labels such as "dropout factory" should answer Eli's question with an urgent supply of caring that engages the entire community.
The facts are too overwhelming to ignore. America needs no less than a Civic Marshall Plan to move from a dropout nation to a graduation nation.