It’s a telling commentary about education reform that just about everyone has been given a forum about ways to address the appalling dropout rate afflicting public schools in this country except the dropouts themselves. I say this unabashedly because I was an urban high school dropout myself, and after much research on the subject, I can tell you first-hand why it happens and how to fix it. Charter schools, vouchers, smaller class sizes, and standardized testing are definitely not the answer as they will not make real, systemic change. Until reformers start listening to the students who dropped out or are currently failing, their attempt to reform will also fail.
The first thing to understand is that many students feel school simply does not matter. I, like most of my classmates, believed that I would one day become a sports or entertainment star, and everyone knows you don’t need to know Algebra to shoot three-pointers or to rap. Once you understand this fundamental concept—that we don’t care about school—only then can you attempt to fix it.
The two major reasons why inner-city high school students drop out are because they don’t see the need for school in relation to their current dreams and goals, and because it’s simply too boring. The good news is that there really is a “silver bullet” fix here and, until it is implemented in urban schools, there won’t be much success at reducing dropouts. What is this fix? Simple. Teacher reform.
After analyzing my own grade school failures and speaking with dozens of recent dropouts, it’s clear that teacher effectiveness is the silver bullet. Whereas programs like NCLB choose to focus on the need for “highly qualified” teachers, the focus should be on creating a system of “highly effective” teachers. I would much rather have an exciting first-year teacher than a 20-year veteran who has three degrees, but is a dud. Here’s a newsflash for teacher duds—lecture is dead. It’s boring and ineffective. Stop doing it. Instead, find ways to make the lessons fun, engaging and, most importantly, relevant to students’ lives. Teacher reform will lead to student success, irrespective of subject matter.
Making the lesson fun makes us want to come to class. We want to know what cool new thing will happen today. What will the teacher do next? We have to be there to find out. The last thing we want is to skip class only to hear from someone else how much fun it was. “You guys did what today? I can’t believe I missed it!” Not a typical response from students, unless of course they have highly effective teachers.
Making the class engaging is just as important. Teachers need to get students involved and solicit their input on everything from creating rules to grading. Break classes into groups. Since the grade of the entire group is dependent upon each student’s action, they are more likely to care. Students’ peers have a greater influence over them than nearly anyone else. But remember to keep it entertaining. Turn the lesson into a game show. There are many ways to make classes engaging and fun, limited only by the teacher’s imagination. No imagination? Have them ask their students for advice.
Most importantly, teachers must make the lesson relevant to their students’ lives. Want to teach them how to read better? Forget Shakespeare for now. Instead, have them read material that they can relate to. And not the same thing for all of them. Give them choices. Mike only cares about football? Fine, have him read the Sports Illustrated cover article. Michelle only cares about a rapping career? Great, have her read Russell Simmons’ autobiography. Students are individuals, not clones. There is no one-size fits all in education.
Many education “experts” talk about how there is no silver bullet for reform. Some say that there is no chance of real reform unless major change is made at the socioeconomic level. I disagree. Even with an imperfect society, vast improvements can be made in education. While socioeconomic factors such as reducing poverty, the proper financing of schools, and the lack of parental involvement do play a role, those roles are minor compared to what happens in the classroom all day, every day.
Poverty and its effects are here to stay. However, there is definitely a silver-bullet to education reform and that is by creating a system-wide network of highly effective teachers. It’s that simple. Maybe it just takes a high school dropout to see it.
This is a reprint of my original article originally published in Education Week – Vol. 29, No. 8 – October 21, 2009.