Dropout Prevention Strategy: Be Less Boring

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Standing room only at the 25th annual National Dropout Prevention Network Conference, with a keynote address by former Education Secretary Bill Bennett. All photos by Maggie Lee / Youth Today. 

ATLANTA -- Hundreds of educators and youth service workers are gathered in Atlanta this week to work on ways to keep kids in school. One problem is that students see some of their programs as useless.

The number one reason for high schoolers dropping out, according to Georgia’s public schools boss, is that they find school “unrelentingly boring and irrelevant.”

But if “students see relevance, they see the connection between what they learn in school and what interest they have in a career, we will stem the dropout rate,” said John Barge, Georgia superintendent of schools, addressing the 25th annual National Dropout Prevention Network Conference, organized by the Clemson, S.C.,-based National Dropout Prevention Network.

Between five and 10 young people out of every 100 had no high school degree or GED, nor were they working on one, in each of the years from 2007 to 2011, according to federal statistics. In the 1990s, the rates were between 10 and 15 percent.  

 But the solutions are so easy it’s criminal, said NDPN executive director Beth Reynolds. She divides the engagement problem into two zones: inside the schoolhouse and outside, and quickly rattles off ways to be more interesting.

At school, “we know kids are more visual,” said Reynolds. “Why is it,” she asked, “that we don’t as a practice show them samples and models” or thoughtfully critique their work for re-do rather than handing out a single, unexplained letter of the alphabet?

Outside, she said, a relationship with a caring adult is key, so that the child knows someone is invested in them, and wants to see them succeed.

  And good education will be packaged in new ways to reach the smart-phone carrying youth of the 21st century, said Bill Bennett (pictured at left), Reagan-era Secretary of Education turned author and conservative pundit.

“Even kids at risk have cell phones,” he said.  In a 2000 book, Bennett argued that there was no evidence that computers aided in learning, and that too much gadgetry may be detrimental to the young mind.

“I don’t think I’d make that assessment now,” he said.  Bennett is now on the advisory board of Udacity, a Web site that offers free, online courses mostly in computer science.

Students report they like the online community they join in such courses, he said.

Back in the analog world, Georgia’s class of 2018 will be the first to have entered high school on a so-called “career pathway”: a plan pointing them toward one of more than 100 careers.

Georgia generally ties arguments for high school education innovation to the needs of the state’s economy. Indeed, one career path is marine logistics, designed for would-be workers at and around the Port of Savannah.

“If we’re going to prepare our children for the jobs of the future, we have to bring business and industry to the table with us as educators to help us provide relevant curriculum to our students,” said Barge.

Bennett, speaking about teachers, said some are better than others at engaging and teaching students and that it’s “imperative” that better teachers be rewarded.

Probably the second biggest reason for dropping out of school, said Reynolds, is missing school. In many school districts, if a student is absent for too many days, they cannot get credit.

Systems should allow students to “redeem themselves,” she said. “What’s magical about 180 days?”

Saturday school or longer or shorter sessions or other flexible schedules serve some students better, she believes.

Lessons that are not engaging and absenteeism have replaced what were the most common reasons for dropping out 30 or 40 years ago, said Reynolds, but the old reasons still appear on today’s list: failing grades, behavior problems or an economic need to work and take care of children and family.