Fixing the Dropout Crisis, Part II

About a month ago, Howard University and our local NPR station, WAMU, held a teacher town hall on the dropout crisis in the DC area. This was one of many similar events around the country. My first take on the event can be found here.

After listening to the whole thing again, my first thought was to retract much of what I said initially about the event being fairly uninspiring and underwhelming. After listening to most of it a third time, I’m a little less sure.

Let’s talk…

Four Things struck me as I listened again.

1) The entire system is being held hostage by the bottom, say, 10 percent of students. Many teachers in effect ended up turning on other teachers for sending kids up to the next grade when they should have been held back. Social promotion. A kid who was not ready for fifth grade in the first place is moved on to sixth. The sixth grade teacher then has to deal with the same problem, only now it is larger and less manageable.

Why do this? Why would a teacher send somebody up who clearly has not met even the minimum standards of the grade he is in? One school counselor noted the pressures that teachers feel from parents to graduate seniors. NOBODY said anything at all about pressure from the administration to pass and graduate kids who don’t deserve it. This seemed like a glaring omission. At my school, admin would regularly berate teachers for “giving too many Fs”. The problem is teachers being mean, not students who don’t do work. How can I be failing too many people and at the same time be accused of having low standards? I’ve seen teachers’ heads explode trying to solve this equation.

We know that when students are promoted without warrant they just fall further behind and they learn that they can get away with doing next to nothing and still get moved up. We know also that students have a higher chance of dropping out if they are held back. The default often is to move them up if they tell a sad story and at least create the appearance of working hard for the last two weeks of the year. As long as the graduation rate is a fetish item, we will continue to be held hostage to these students as the diploma itself becomes less a mark of learning and devalues to become an extension of the social welfare system.

The collective judgment we seem to have made is that it is better for students to be connected in some way to school than not, even if they come to school once a week for half a day and raise hell the whole time they are there. The calculation has been made that no expense should be spared to keep them there and try to catch them up, even if they do nothing to contribute to this goal themselves. It simply doesn’t matter what this costs taxpayers, teachers or other students in the class.

2) Only one teacher really honestly described the overwhelming effect a truly obnoxious student can have on a classroom. He was clearly frustrated as he described a student way older than his classmates who would come to school irregularly, often high. He would talk about being high, getting high and spend most of his time trying to touch and talk to the girls in the class, much younger than himself.

As the teacher described this student, the camera panned over the faces of a couple other teachers in the hall. They looked decidedly uncomfortable, yet focused; like they believed they might be able to will him to stop speaking with their minds. It was as if he was the drunken uncle at Christmas dinner who suddenly decided that this was the time to tell the story about how grandma got an illegal abortion in 1965. It’s true, yes. But shut the fuck up! Not here. Not now! Almost like dirty laundry.

3) Teachers are not taken seriously. I see now that part of my initial dissatisfaction with the teachers’ responses was due to the questions. There were no Big Think questions about the purpose of education or about systemic solutions to the problem of endless hordes of children who are unprepared and don’t care. Questions tended to invite touchy-feely responses that described how a single teacher had worked really hard to reach a single student. I wish teachers were invited into the larger conversations about education policy and our collective philosophy of education and resource allocation.

Example: 78% of teachers said their teacher education program did not prepare them for the challenges they face in the classroom. Then the issue was dropped. Why not ask something like this: How do you think teacher education should be changed to better prepare teachers for the classroom?

Instead, we were left with this single, sad PowerPoint slide with the following bullet points at the end of the discussion:


  • Engage families to support our students
  • Have tutors or guest speakers for the students to relate to
  • Reading is critical to success in school
  • Start intervention early
  • Break classes into small groups to help at-risk students
  • Daily positive affirmations/reward systems for student accountability
  • Remediation/life skills classes should be added

First, I’d like to point out that the third bullet point isn’t even phrased as a recommendation. Rather, it’s a wasteful, tepid and pedestrian statement of fact. Isn’t this all on page 4 of your teacher handbook anyway?

4) Some teachers are truly remarkable people. Three or four teachers stood out as the kind you might see in those Jesus Christ SuperTeacher movies. Real heroes, and, for a change, I am not being sarcastic. One teacher told of doing 52 home visits this year; two for each of his 26 students. Another said that he never views bad behavior as a sign of disrespect. It’s just kids asking for help in a way that we are not familiar with. Others used coded language to make behavior that is clearly borderline psychotic and criminal to sound simply eccentric. I teach many children with exceptionalities.

In all, I have no question that this group is far more patient, dedicated and has a higher tolerance for abuse by young people than I do. In this environment, that may make them better teachers than me. It’s probably more important than being a good writer or having a deep knowledge of your subject. Their patience and selflessness is to be applauded. It would be great if every teacher could be a little more like them.

But is it possible? Is it reasonable? It would be fantastic if every student could have Gandhi or Jesus as their teacher. But these cats only come around every so often. We’re never going to have 4 million of them at once and it is absurd and unfair to demand it. (Personally, I think that many would be a pain in the ass.) Teaching is a job. It shouldn’t have to be a spiritual calling.

Speaking of Jesus Christ SuperTeacher, I’d like you to watch this video by Roxanna Elden. She is a friend, author and teacher. This is a great and funny talk about The Super Teacher Myth. (I have also reviewed her book here.)

Hope you’re enjoying the summer.




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