Remarks, Central New York School Boards Association, 9/10/15

Front coverRemarks to the Central New York School Boards Association

Jeanne Cameron

September 10, 2015

Good evening. Thank you for having me. I am honored and grateful to be here.

I’ve been asked to share with you what I know about high school dropouts. Let me begin with a cautionary note – My perspective rubs against the grain of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom tells us that there is something “deficient” in dropouts, and that we need to remediate the deficiency in order to fix the problem. My own view is that the deficiency rests within our education system and that dropouts can offer us the best advice for fixing public schooling.

Dropouts are, in short, the canaries in the coal mine of schools.

Now, you might ask, how did Jeanne arrive at such a conclusion? And my answer would be – the same way we all do. When facing an important question or problem, our past experiences inform the conclusions we reach. John Dewey, the famous American Educational philosopher, referred to this as the principle of continuity. In other words, each new experience we have is shaped by our prior experiences, while, at the same time, altering the content and quality of those yet to come.

For instance, a child’s first encounter with literacy in school is shaped not only by what happens in the classroom in that moment, but by her previous experiences with language and text in her home and community. And what transpires in the first school encounter will shape subsequent experiences.

In the novel, The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich captures this idea beautifully:

When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.

The principle of continuity is not only central to why individual students drop out, it’s also central to the sense we make of their decisions. What we bring to the table shapes how we see dropouts and how we understand the dropout problem. The particular sense that I make is very much a product of the continuity of my own experiences.

The research for Canaries Reflect on the Mine was inspired by heartbreak, when two of my son’s closest friends dropped out of high school in 2008. These were boys who had spent countless hours in my home, boys I knew well, boys who in no way fit the stereotypes we associate with dropouts. Ivan had been in the gifted program, and in AP and honors classes. He had participated in a wide-range of extra-curriculars in both athletics and the arts. Steve had been a star athlete and one of the “popular” kids. He was also more than capable of excelling academically.

So my interest in dropouts did not emerge from some detached, intellectual space. I was distraught. I started asking questions of my teacher friends in the School District. And, in one way or another, they all told me, “Kids are dropping like flies.” This message propelled me to the New York State Department of Education website where I discovered that my friends were right – Cortland High really did have a “dropout problem.”

In 2009 I begin interviewing Ivan, Steve, and 10 other Cortland dropouts. The interviews revolved around three questions:

1) How did these young people remember high school?

2) How did they come to the decision to drop out?

3) What changes would they make to the high school experience so that more young people would make it to graduation?

And just like Ivan and Steve, each of the others defied common stereotypes about dropouts. 8 the 12 could have graduated easily if academic ability was all that mattered. 10 of the 12 had close peer relationships. Each of the 12 could name teachers with whom they had connected. Nearly all expressed the belief that formal education is important. And all but one wished they had been able to persist.

What would have helped them, and presumably others, to make it to graduation?

Four themes or desires emerged from their stories.

First, each one wished to be seen and known, not just as a student but as a full-fledged human being with skills and troubles and dreams.

Second, each one wished to be valued. They believed that high school was set up to favor a certain type of student. They did not fit this mold.

Third, they all wished to be treated respectfully as emerging adults.

And finally, they were all hungry for an education that was relevant to their interests and purposes.

It is this final theme I wish to address tonight, as it is the sun around which the other planets revolve.

As I talked with these young people, as I typed transcripts of our interviews, as I began assembling their individual stories, my thoughts were brought back – repeatedly – to my own experiences with high school and to my life afterwards. The sense I make of their stories is intimately connected to the sense I make of my own life.

Let’s each of us – for a moment – call to mind a specific young person we care deeply about. A child we desperately want to “succeed.” Do you have someone in mind?

Now, take a moment to think about what “success” means to you. If the young person you’re thinking about grows to become a “successful” adult, what, in your mind, would that look like? Think for a moment.

I imagine there’s variation in the room, but I suspect that there are a few things we hold in common. For instance, I bet each of us would like our young person to make enough money to live at least modestly well. I imagine, also, that we hope our young person will grow to be competent in her work and that her work will make her happy. Finally, if we value not only individual success but community well-being, we’ll likely hope that our young person will make larger contributions to her’s.

According to these criteria, I am a successful person.

My job pays a living wage and I enjoy a wide range of benefits. I’m well educated and I’m seen as an expert in my field. Most important, I have a job that I love, a job that I find deeply meaningful. As a community college professor, I have the honor of working and learning with students whose lives have not – for the most part – been gentle. And because they have not lived gentle lives, they are remarkably grateful for everything I do.

I celebrated my 55th birthday last month, and one of my former students, Ian, posted this to my FB page:

Happy Birthday Jeanne! I haven’t seen you in forever, but of all the teachers and professors I’ve ever had, you’ve had the most profound impact on the way I view life and think about other people and myself, and thinking back on your lessons, I still learn from you to this day.

I receive communications like this fairly regularly, and truth be told, I am really good at my job. And in the 28 years I’ve been in college classrooms, I have made a difference in the lives of many students like Ian.

I tell you all of this not to brag, but to drive home a crucial point. If I were coming through today’s school system, I would not make it to graduation.

And this would not only be a personal loss for me. It would be a loss for all of those students I would never get to teach.

And if nothing else I say sticks tonight, I hope this will – when a young person leaves school without a diploma, the personal loss is significant, but the social loss is greater still, and not just losses in income and tax dollars.

The loss of the dropout’s contribution to the well-being of the others is one we cannot measure.

Now, let’s take a moment to consider my high school experiences, and why I say I’d be a dropout if I were coming through today’s school system:

The year is 1977 and I’m a junior. I meet with my guidance counselor to discuss my future. He tells me that the military is my best bet. I’m just not “college material.”

Given the actual path my life has taken, his observation now seems a bit comical. But looking at my high school record? Not so much.

The only science course I took in high school was biology. I passed with a C-, but failed the Regents.

I just scraped through algebra with a D, but failed the Regents. I took geometry. Twice. And both times, I failed. The second time I took geometry, the class met directly after lunch. Because I spent most of my lunch periods down at the wall getting stoned, I acquired the habit of writing Moody Blues lyrics on the grid sheets of my geometry tests. My teacher was not amused. I took the geometry Regents 3 times, and I still remember my scores: 18, 36, 48.

I found social studies boring beyond belief, and my grades never exceeded a C. Although I did pass the American History Regents, I can assure you that a passing score on today’s Global History and Geography test would have been beyond my grasp. 

English saved me. I completed significantly more than the 4 required credits because I chose half-year literature courses for nearly all of my electives. I passed the English regents with ease, even though the first time I saw such an exam was on the morning when I sat down to take it in my school’s gymnasium. Not a single moment of my high school English instruction was devoted to Regents prep.

According to today’s graduation requirements, I would be short 2 credits in science, and 1 credit in math and history, each. I would also be short 3 passing Regents scores.

But in 1978 I was able to graduate, and even with my generally poor grades, good letters of recommendation from English teachers were enough to secure me a spot at SUNY Cortland. I completed a BA in sociology with a minor in literature, and then both a masters and a Ph.D. in sociology.

And here’s the thing, even though – by today’s standards – I would not be seen as college ready, my strong performance in college had everything to do with my high school preparation.

All those high school literature classes fed my hunger to read deeply and write well. And the class I took on Steinbeck gave me profound insights into my own life as a working-class child. I credit The Grapes of Wrath, in part, for leading me to the field of sociology and to the problem of inequality that has become my life’s work.

Moreover, in the years since high school, my work as a sociologist has made me a voracious reader of history. And while I would still fail the NYS algebra and geometry Regents, I have a working understanding of statistics – the type of math I actually need and use. And while the periodic table is Greek to me, I can employ the scientific method to real world sociological questions with confidence.

In other words, although my math and science skills were minimal when I left high school, I have learned to use both disciplines quite effectively in my work and my life.

My analysis of the dropout problem is that education reform is what ails our schools. Education reform has contributed mightily to not only the dropout problem but to an impoverished education for all of our young people.

The phrase “education reform” means different things to different people, so let me be clear about what it means to me. When I say education reform, I am not referring to specific policies such as No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top or APPR or Common Core. I am instead referring to a sweeping movement that began over 30 years ago with the 1984 publication of A Nation at Risk.

The primary impulse behind this publication – and nearly everything that’s happened since – was a concern about our nation’s economic competitiveness. In a world economy driven by technological advances, the math and science capacity of any given nation translates directly to economic profits and international political power.

And frankly, I am sympathetic to these concerns. I believe that we need students, many, many students, who find their passion in the STEM fields.

But here’s the thing – We have not spent the last 30 years creating the conditions whereby such students can go deep in math and science.

Instead, we have created the conditions whereby every single student – whether they are wired that way or not – is forced to endure multiple years of math and science instruction that they will never use in their lives.

We have created the conditions whereby those who are drawn to the STEM fields are rarely given the opportunity to develop because most of their teachers’ energies must be devoted to the students who are repelled by these fields. And in the meantime, the value of the humanities and the arts has been lost, almost entirely.

In 1982, four years after I graduated from high school and two years before the publication of A Nation at Risk, a student needed to complete an average of 21.6 credits to graduate from a public high school. Just a whisper less than our 22 credit requirement today. However, back in 1982, of the 21.6 credits, only 12 were specified.[1] In other words, 45% of a student’s high school coursework consisted of electives. This is what allowed me to go deep in literature and writing. Today, in New York State, only 16% of coursework is elective for a student pursuing a regular diploma. For a student pursuing an advanced Regents diploma, a meager 6% of coursework is elective.

Education reform in the U.S. has come to mean quantity over depth and standardization over personalization.

Ivan, one of the Canaries, offers an especially incisive critique of this approach: 

School is a system, it’s a factory system. It’s a child factory. The children file in, they’re tinkered with, and then they’re bussed out.  They inject you with information. It doesn’t matter if you want to know it. It doesn’t matter if it matters. It’s just whatever the curriculum dictates. I get it that they want an educated population so that we can all get good jobs and be smart citizens, but why does every student need to get all the way to pre-calculus?  It’s required, and it pertains to nothing in this universe unless you’re in such careers as engineering or space travel. And the truth is that you’re learning this information so that you can pass your test – at the end of the month, or the end of the week or the end of the year, but as soon as you’re done with the test, the information just flies away. You don’t retain it. You come out an inch deep. The end result is nothing.

The perception that schooling offered little of value was expressed by over half of the Canaries. David for instance, said, I just didn’t understand why we had to go for so long to learn that stuff when you don’t really use that much of it in real life. What’s even worse is they keep making you learn the same stuff over and over.”

A key reason for this repetition is that everyone is required to learn the same thing, but interest in the thing being learned is remarkably uneven.

Consequently, one student whose mind is set on fire every time she encounters a mathematical proof is denied the opportunity to study geometry in depth, while two other students, who have no interest in proofs, must be forced to learn geometry’s most basic functions. The first student leaves the class wistful, the second fails, and the third becomes increasingly alienated from school.

Nobody wins.

The primary reason that most of the young people gave for leaving school was that they genuinely felt that they had better things, more meaningful and useful things, to do elsewhere.

Nathan: I’d rather be out working, making money, and get my GED. I already knew the basic stuff I needed to know. I like to not waste my time when I should be out making something of myself.

If we truly want all students to graduate and grow into successful adulthood, then we need to stop pretending that all students need the same thing from schooling. The high school experience must speak to each student’s interests and be connected to each student’s purposes. Each student must see what she’s learning as relevant, as valuable. One-size schooling fits no one.

In Emily’s words:

Put more flexibility in scheduling. I get that you need some science, some math, some English, some history, but I think there should be more options, so that students could learn the things that they’re interested in, instead of the things that NYS wants them to be interested in. 

In Ivan’s words:

Let’s aim for the development of passion. Okay, yes, put it all on the table for everyone during elementary school, up to the teen years. Give ’em everything. You want them to be well rounded people. But I believe that during adolescence, you know what you’re interested in, and you know what you’re not, so let’s aim for a more shape-shifting education revolved around elective learning and being able to choose your own knowledge path.  

If you see wisdom in Emily and Ivan’s recommendations, what can you do, as school board members, to support a more flexible, shape-shifting curriculum?

The first thing you can do is talk with high schoolers you know. See what they think. If those conversations persuade you that the current one-size curriculum is bad for all students, then begin taking some additional steps.

Write a letter to the editor of your local paper.

Contact your state legislative representatives, as well as the members of the education committees in both houses. Contact the members of the Board of Regents. Tell all these folks what you think.

If the members of your local school board are in agreement, draft a memo in support of a more flexible curriculum and less testing. Send it to all the folks I just mentioned, and publish it in your local newspaper.

Finally, and most importantly, leverage your position as school board members in your own communities. Although you lack the power to write education policy, you have what sociologists call “social capital.” You know people. You have connections. You can exercise considerable influence at the local level. Start talking to people. Have at least one conversation about public schooling with someone each day.

The standardization movement has 30 years of momentum behind it. It will not cease unless lots of different people step up in lots of different ways. And folks are beginning to step up. The parent-organized Opt Out movement, for instance, now has Governor Cuomo’s attention. Last Thursday be began peddling backwards almost as fast as he was peddling forwards a year ago. We are in a moment, pregnant with possibility. Add your voice to all the others who are asking for a more meaningful education for all of our young people.

Let me leave you with the words of Harrison, a brilliant dropout who found his way into my sociology class: 

We live in one of the largest consumer cultures where I can choose between seven different coffee shops on my commute alone. I counted. Why don’t I have the largest number of choices for what is arguably the most important thing we get from society, an education? I for one am tired of living off Star Bucks…. School should be an ever changing beast in terms of curriculum; it should be like home cooking that is made to fit your current needs and not like a drive through with the same menu day after day. Sure they both feed you and drive through is more convenient, but home cooking has a greater variety and is healthier for the body.

 Thank you.

[1] Source: The Statistical Abstract of the United States.

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