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Plan to stem dropout rate stirs controversy

President Obama is proposing $900M to turn around the nation’s worst performing schools—but to get the money, districts would have to agree to dramatic changes that have some educators concerned

Only about 70 percent of high school freshmen go on to graduate, the White House says.

Only about 70 percent of high school freshmen go on to graduate, the White House says.

The Obama administration is offering a $900 million carrot to the nation’s school systems to tackle what many view as an abysmal dropout rate that threatens America’s ability to compete in the new global economy. But it’s the “stick” portion of the administration’s plan that has rankled many educators.

Districts would get the money only if they agree to one of four plans to dramatically change or even shut down their worst performing schools. One of these plans involves firing the principal and at least half of the staff members at a struggling school—a turnaround plan that captured national attention when it was tried by the Central Falls, R.I., school system last week.

President Obama took aim at the nation’s school dropout epidemic in a March 1 speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During the event—which was sponsored by the America’s Promise Alliance, a youth-oriented organization founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma—Obama noted the economic impact that dropouts have on America’s ability to compete.

The White House says 1.2 million students drop out of school each year, and only about 70 percent of entering high school freshmen go on to graduate. The problem affects blacks and Latinos at particularly high rates. About 2,000 high schools turn out half of all dropouts, and the administration says it will work with states to identify those schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.

Obama described the crisis as one that hurts individual kids and the nation as a whole, shattering dreams and undermining an already hurting economy.

“There’s got to be a sense of accountability,” Obama said in announcing his latest get-tough school proposal. The president’s plan would seek to help 5,000 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools over the next five years.

“In this kind of knowledge economy, giving up on your education and dropping out of school means not only giving up on your future, but it’s also giving up on your family’s future,” Obama said. “It’s giving up on your country.”

Obama has been pushing schools—using federal money as his leverage—to raise their standards and prod them to get more children ready for college or work. It is a task that former President George W. Bush and Congress, along with many leaders before them, have long taken on, but the challenge is steep.

Obama’s 2011 budget proposal includes $900 million for School Turnaround Grants. To get a share of the money, states and school districts must adopt one of four approaches to fix their lowest-performing schools:

• Turnaround Model: The school district must replace the principal and at least half of the school staff, adopt a new governance structure for the school, and implement a new or revised instructional program.

• Restart Model: The school district must close and reopen the school under the management of a charter school operator, a charter management organization or an educational management organization. A restarted school would be required to enroll, within the grades it serves, former students who wish to attend.

• School Closure: The school district must close the failing school and enroll the students in other, higher-achieving schools in the district.

• Transformational Model: The school must address four areas, including teacher effectiveness, instruction, learning and teacher planning time, and operational flexibility.

The administration also is putting $50 million into dropout prevention strategies, including personalized and individual instruction and support to keep students engaged in learning, and better use of data to identify students at risk of failure and to help them with the transition to high school and college.

But it’s the four models for turning around chronically underperforming schools that have garnered the most attention, especially after the Central Falls, R.I., school board voted to fire 88 teachers and other staff members at Central Falls High School at year’s end.

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Comments:

  1. shamini

    March 8, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    “Yes, we need to have hard classes with high expectations but we need to help all students succeed and because a student would rather choose a trade or technical college, this should not be upsetting. It does not mean standards are being lowered.’

    I agree essentially with this, but we need to examine our own values and perceptions about ‘academic’ classes which we see as hard classes with high expectations, and trade and technical classes which by contrast and placement in polarity with the former are seen as less demanding, easier, and therefore for the less ‘smart’ students. Also, notice how we say ‘career’ for academically based work, and ‘jobs’ for those who come through the trade and vocational schools. We say education for the former and training for the latter. Schools, counselors, parents … we all perpetuate this mindset. Little wonder that kids see trade/vocational schools as lower rung, and a sign of failure to go to college.

    And yet, the knowledge economy requires not a very different integration of the academic and technical areas of life. Nations that are ahead of the curve like Singapore, the Scandinavian nations who are leaders of innovation have found ways to decrease the polarity between traditional college courses and these so-called vocational courses.

    If we can re-think how we see college and the alternatives to traditional college, maybe we will see better how to adequately prepare students to succeed in high school so that they go on to the path in further education that is congruent with their talents and passions.

  2. shamini

    March 8, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    “Yes, we need to have hard classes with high expectations but we need to help all students succeed and because a student would rather choose a trade or technical college, this should not be upsetting. It does not mean standards are being lowered.’

    I agree essentially with this, but we need to examine our own values and perceptions about ‘academic’ classes which we see as hard classes with high expectations, and trade and technical classes which by contrast and placement in polarity with the former are seen as less demanding, easier, and therefore for the less ‘smart’ students. Also, notice how we say ‘career’ for academically based work, and ‘jobs’ for those who come through the trade and vocational schools. We say education for the former and training for the latter. Schools, counselors, parents … we all perpetuate this mindset. Little wonder that kids see trade/vocational schools as lower rung, and a sign of failure to go to college.

    And yet, the knowledge economy requires not a very different integration of the academic and technical areas of life. Nations that are ahead of the curve like Singapore, the Scandinavian nations who are leaders of innovation have found ways to decrease the polarity between traditional college courses and these so-called vocational courses.

    If we can re-think how we see college and the alternatives to traditional college, maybe we will see better how to adequately prepare students to succeed in high school so that they go on to the path in further education that is congruent with their talents and passions.

  3. Thomas.G.Layton

    March 8, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Yes, the high school dropout rate is pretty steady at about 30%. But the college drop out rate is 50-60% depending on your source. The high school drop out may wind up on unemployment or in a low paying job at WalMart. The college dropout may wind up on unemployment or a low paying job at WalMart. The difference is that the high school drop-out will not be $10,000 in debt with a very bad credit rating, and will have 4 years of seniority over the student who dropped out after his sophomore year of college instead of his sophomore year in high school. The average kid knows that he or she will never be a scholar and that all high school courses are designed to be a step to college. There are no courses left to prepare you for a non-college future. If you wait to graduate from high school, you are losing 2 years of income (even if it is very low). The current HS curriculum is aimed at learning stuff that you can find on Google in a manner of minutes whenever you want. What’s wrong with creating high schools that help students learn what they want to learn instead of things to get a good score on some college entrance exam.

  4. Thomas.G.Layton

    March 8, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Yes, the high school dropout rate is pretty steady at about 30%. But the college drop out rate is 50-60% depending on your source. The high school drop out may wind up on unemployment or in a low paying job at WalMart. The college dropout may wind up on unemployment or a low paying job at WalMart. The difference is that the high school drop-out will not be $10,000 in debt with a very bad credit rating, and will have 4 years of seniority over the student who dropped out after his sophomore year of college instead of his sophomore year in high school. The average kid knows that he or she will never be a scholar and that all high school courses are designed to be a step to college. There are no courses left to prepare you for a non-college future. If you wait to graduate from high school, you are losing 2 years of income (even if it is very low). The current HS curriculum is aimed at learning stuff that you can find on Google in a manner of minutes whenever you want. What’s wrong with creating high schools that help students learn what they want to learn instead of things to get a good score on some college entrance exam.

  5. mrsnolanroom412

    March 8, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    I think President Obama and Educational Secretary Arne Duncan are missing the boat on this issue. Students who want to learn do. Students who want to succeed do. The problem is–very few want to learn and very few want to succeed. It’s too much work.

    Students are becoming lazy. They don’t want to work. They don’t want to worry about learning. They will worry about that later. Whether this is a societal issue or a nutritional issue–I don’t know.

    I have taught school for twenty-six years and I can honestly say I work harder now than I did when I started. In fact, every teacher around me works hard. Why? Teachers are the ultimate learners. Most teachers I know just love to learn. We want to instill that love of learning in our students. I teach junior high and I go to school each morning for those students who still want to learn. When their eyes light up with curiosity, my day is made.

    In Ohio, kids spend 180 days a year in school–less than eight hours a day–and that’s if they have perfect attendance. More than 80% of their lives is spent OUTSIDE of school. The time spent outside of school is coloring their judgement of what they want to do. Television, internet, parents, and friends, all have more influence on these kids than their schools do.

    You can turnaround, restart, close or transform as many schools as you want to, but I bet my dwindling retirement package that it won’t solve the problem.

  6. mrsnolanroom412

    March 8, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    I think President Obama and Educational Secretary Arne Duncan are missing the boat on this issue. Students who want to learn do. Students who want to succeed do. The problem is–very few want to learn and very few want to succeed. It’s too much work.

    Students are becoming lazy. They don’t want to work. They don’t want to worry about learning. They will worry about that later. Whether this is a societal issue or a nutritional issue–I don’t know.

    I have taught school for twenty-six years and I can honestly say I work harder now than I did when I started. In fact, every teacher around me works hard. Why? Teachers are the ultimate learners. Most teachers I know just love to learn. We want to instill that love of learning in our students. I teach junior high and I go to school each morning for those students who still want to learn. When their eyes light up with curiosity, my day is made.

    In Ohio, kids spend 180 days a year in school–less than eight hours a day–and that’s if they have perfect attendance. More than 80% of their lives is spent OUTSIDE of school. The time spent outside of school is coloring their judgement of what they want to do. Television, internet, parents, and friends, all have more influence on these kids than their schools do.

    You can turnaround, restart, close or transform as many schools as you want to, but I bet my dwindling retirement package that it won’t solve the problem.

  7. fedup52

    March 15, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    I am a School Advisory Council member. We advise nothing. We are eye candy for the law. We make no impact on the way business is done at the school. The law says the parents have the right to see the curriculum and the material before their student takes the course. Can’t ever happen, as the district will not provide an appointment to view. The teachers in middle school have stated “if your child doesn’t get it when I present it to the class, it is not my problem to see that he does, it is the child’s and your problem to see that he gets it”. No curriculum, no class lessons, how do we know what he isn’t getting? Get the point? It is not the teacher’s responsibility to see that their students are getting the knowledge. They don’t have the time (their statment) to remediate any student. They have to push on and close that year. Too bad for the kids that did not follow the lesson or did not have the base knowledge from previous years. That is what is also wrong with education and why kids drop out. Also I agree that we are forcing courses to make every child think they have to go to college. Hey Gates give away all that money and enroll in college again! We are making it where a college diploma doesnt’ really mean what it used to. We flood the system with unprepared and underfunded students that can not stay the course. Good business for the colleges, bad for the students and the economy.

  8. fedup52

    March 15, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    I am a School Advisory Council member. We advise nothing. We are eye candy for the law. We make no impact on the way business is done at the school. The law says the parents have the right to see the curriculum and the material before their student takes the course. Can’t ever happen, as the district will not provide an appointment to view. The teachers in middle school have stated “if your child doesn’t get it when I present it to the class, it is not my problem to see that he does, it is the child’s and your problem to see that he gets it”. No curriculum, no class lessons, how do we know what he isn’t getting? Get the point? It is not the teacher’s responsibility to see that their students are getting the knowledge. They don’t have the time (their statment) to remediate any student. They have to push on and close that year. Too bad for the kids that did not follow the lesson or did not have the base knowledge from previous years. That is what is also wrong with education and why kids drop out. Also I agree that we are forcing courses to make every child think they have to go to college. Hey Gates give away all that money and enroll in college again! We are making it where a college diploma doesnt’ really mean what it used to. We flood the system with unprepared and underfunded students that can not stay the course. Good business for the colleges, bad for the students and the economy.