Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Silent Epidemic - student failure

I recently had the good fortune of attending the Governor's Student Engagement and Dropout Prevention Summit. It was very interesting for me to attend, since just a few days before, I listened to a lively College Senate discussion focused on underprepared students. The nexus for me in all of this is that there are some significant alterations in what is happening to our youth and to education overall. We have two overwhelming forces at play - numbing figures of high school dropouts coupled with staggering figures of college students in remedial/college prep courses because they are not prepared for college-level work.

At the Summit, I learned about how important the calculation of high school dropouts can be. For many years, the rate was focused on how many 12th graders started their senior year and how many graduated. More recently however, the standard calculation considers those that dropped out of high school in 11th, 10th, and the even larger numbers seen dropping out in 9th grade - 9th grade! You can learn more than you want to know about this topic by a simple Google search on "the silent epidemic." I was also intrigued by the statement "the normalization of failure" made by our amazing keynote speaker, Dr. Pedro Noguera, from NYU, as he spoke about how schools (and colleges) plan for a "certain number" of students in each grade (or class) to dropout. His remarks provided the many ways in which we as educators have tried to ignore, or at least explain away, this disturbing trend of student failure in this country and this state.

We can cite all the data we want - the financial impact of educational attainment - High school dropout average salary - $17,299; High school diploma - $26,933; Associate's degree - $36,645; and Bachelor's degree - $52,671 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005) and we still can't make the point. Rather a focus on the financial advantages of education to a student’s future does not seem to effectively counteract student perceptions about school. The message that I heard from a student panel at the Summit is that education is not relevant. Indeed, the “Silent Epidemic” report tells us that nearly half of the high school drop-outs surveyed found their classes boring and an even greater percentage—69%--said that they were unmotivated and uninspired at school. It seems to me that as adults we fail to fully comprehend the implications of the exponential ways in which students have changed in their ways of thinking, their comfort with technology, and their methods of interacting with us and their peers. We are so busy trying to “tell” students that education is relevant that we are not spending enough time “showing them.” The study suggests that more experiential learning opportunities—internships, job shadowing, and service learning activities, which help to demonstrate the applicability of learning--may be effective ways to offset that perception.

At the College Senate meeting last week, everyone received a copy of the Diploma to Nowhere report. I've included a link to the website here, with links to the executive summary and full, 17-page report. http://www.edin08.com/diplomatonowhere.aspx. As educators at the College level, community college faculty and staff are growing increasingly frustrated by the challenges associated with increasingly high numbers of students needing remediation before enrolling in college-level courses. It's not that community colleges aren't used to or capable of helping students address deficiencies. We've helped those returning adults who have been out of the classroom for years. However, the issues seem to be deeper and more complex than they've ever been. Our frustration is combined with that of our students, who thought their diploma would qualify them for college. We share in their frustration in federal and state financial aid policies that place limits on students' abilities to afford these developmental/college-prep classes, leaving students in a hurry to get these classes over with so they can get on with what they think they came for - "college."

Addressing the needs of underprepared students and the curriculum they learn is a key initiative in our Strategic Plan. In addition, we will do a better job of communicating with our partner school districts to provide them with better information about what college-level work looks like. Attending the Summit and listening to the Senate conversation, I'm left wrestling with some very tough questions - To what extent have we normalized failure? How different are we than the high schools? If the students are bored in high school classrooms, how bored are they in ours? The high performing high schools - those large urban schools in high poverty areas that achieve 90%+ graduation rates - that buck the trend do so by focusing on what works. We know that schools (and colleges) that focus on rigor, relevance and relationships create environments that promote and produce student success in ways less focused schools (and colleges) can even dream. How can we organize our efforts around simultaneously maintaining and/or increasing rigor, relevance and relationships for the benefit of our students?

I'd appreciate your thoughts and insights. You can share them with me at presblog@mvcc.edu.