Drop-out factories have not become extinct

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In some high schools, half or more of all students are still leaving high school before graduation. According to the online Illinois report card (http://www.illinoisreportcard.com/School.aspx?schoolId=150162990250616), only 44% of the students at Manley Career Academy High School graduated within four years. Manley is not alone. Only 54% graduated from Fenger Academy High School, 41% from Robeson High School and 45% from Chicago Virtual Charter School. Interested readers can go to https://illinoisreportcard.com/default.aspx and look at Chicago schools, a number of which are admittedly doing well.

Have we made progress? Without question, graduation rates have been rising in Chicago and throughout the country. If some alarms are being raised about the college-readiness of many of America’s graduates, we are nonetheless preventing students from walking out the door without their diploma.

Here’s the scary part, though. Schools are trying desperately to raise those bars, the bars that indicate annual state test scores and percentage of students graduating from high school. There are substantial Federal and State penalties for failing to raise the bars. Yet many of the bars are not budging or are climbing in small spurts. In fact, despite threats as big as the dissolution of a school district, some of those bars have fallen.

Why does this happen?

Eduhonesty: Obviously I can’t toss off the answer to the above question in one compact paragraph. I believe I have laid down one of the biggest questions in education today. Why can’t we push those bars higher?

I would like to add my inflammatory 2 cents here. I believe the bars remain resistant to our efforts in part because of our inability to face up to a large truth: These kids can’t catch up if they have the same school year as their academically-stronger counterparts. In fact, according to https://www.dosomething.org/facts/11-facts-about-education-and-poverty-america, “By the end of the 4th grade, African-American, Hispanic and low-income students are already 2 years behind grade level. By the time they reach the 12th grade they are 4 years behind.”

I haven’t backtracked to find the study that DoSomething.org used, but I readily believe their numbers. For one thing, academically-lower students normally enter school with fewer vocabulary words at their disposal, sometimes thousands fewer words. The research indicates the vocabulary gap widens with time.

If we want to help the kids at the bottom, I believe we need to rethink the standard 180-day school year. A child who has fallen two-thousand words behind the average student of his or her age needs to learn those missing words quickly. We’ll have to reform school funding to make my idea work, but I would add an extra month or more to that child’s school year, along with an afterschool childcare program that provides snacks and rest, but also extra tutoring during the afternoon.

In my opinion, our kids at the bottom will never catch up any other way. We can’t work that much smarter during our 180-day years, not enough to fill in the gaps, so we will have to work longer. No other option exists. Currently, while teachers are filling in language-learning gaps for vocabulary-poor students, their vocabulary-enriched counterparts are also reading and working on academics, often at a naturally faster rate due to the advantages provided by those expanded vocabularies. That fact alone explains why desperate efforts to help kids who have fallen two years behind may end with those kids eventually falling a full four years behind. Kids who have tumbled four years below grade level often leave school early. School makes many of them feel stupid.

We can fix that for many kids. To give those kids the academic successes they need, though, we will have to provide them with the instructional time they need — which might be 240 days instead of 180 days. We talk about differentiation of instruction all the time. We ought to try practicing what we preach on a macro level. The one-school-year-fits-all from America’s farming past should be replaced by a model that allows more time and instruction in our academic wastelands, those sad zip codes where extra days and afternoons might give kids a realistic chance to catch up.