Cities in Crisis Addendum: How our Urban Schools Actually Fail

As a nation, we need to be thinking long and hard about how we’re failing our youth.  The school system, in particular, necessitates new diagnosis, new ideas, and immediate action.  One of my recurring theses – the overemphasis of core, academic subject areas at the expense of all else has the counterintuitive effect of lowering graduation rates and performance in those core subject areas – seems particularly relevant to our failures exposed in Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation.

The report, written by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center and sponsored by America’s Promise Alliance and the Gates Foundation, reveals poor graduation rates in the 50 most populous cities US.  The statistics and conclusions were predictably appalling.  Bloggers and those commenting on articles in the press are describing our school system as “failing” and the problem as a “catastrophe.”   Across the country, graduation rates are 15% lower in urban areas compared to suburban schools.  In Baltimore, Maryland and Columbus, Ohio, graduation is lower in urban areas by more than 40%.  Cities in Crisis only brings to light what we all knew, and, as it’s been published by high profile institutions, in stereotypical form it lacks the courage to make any recommendations.  I’ll gladly step in to fill that void in the dialog.

Schools fail at graduating their students for four reasons: 1) A significant minority is alienated by the core, academic subject areas and the concomitant instructional techniques often well before High School, 2) schools fail to offer or support programs that might inspire, train, or at least entertain alienated students, 3) schools fail to identify and provide effective programs for those that need remediation, and 4) surrounding communities are unable to demonstrate real-world examples of education fulfilling its promises through role-models and economic opportunity.

The cycle is simple and can easily be personified: Student A, sometime in early middle school, becomes bored and distracted, falls behind academically, and is often in need of discipline.  He looks around in his family and community and no one seems to be able to help him academically.  Most of them seem to view academics past basic reading, writing, and math as irrelevant.  Most of his heroes are sports stars or entertainers.  He likes his art class and woodshop, but both of those programs are undersupplied and dilapidated.  The principal and all the teachers just keep on emphasizing the importance of the same “irrelevant” stuff.  He gets down on himself in school and starts finding confidence in his blossoming social life outside of school.  No one at this point intervenes.  As he gets out in his neighborhood, most of the adults are not using their education.  The ones who make the most money have a trade or are involved in illegal activities.  The only high school graduates he knows work retail.  At this point, school is all but written off completely.

The school systems reaction to a student with this story is to keep on emphasizing core academics, which he is behind on.  At the high school level, he may be forced to do some remediation, which makes him feel singled out as “dumb.”  More than likely, he probably doesn’t show up after a while.  The school has cut or is starving any program that might get this young person’s attention and allegiance.  The school offers very few technical programs that will help him get a job.  They do not foster relationships with either white collar or blue collar businesses to facilitate internships or apprenticeships which could provide role-models.  The school simply tries to force him down the same path he has decided is not for him.

The value of non-core subject areas and technical programs is not to distract students; it is to keep students engaged and to offer alternative outlets where a student can find confidence in themselves and their work.  If a student remains engaged in a non-core program, they are likely to remain in school.  If a school can then use that time to effectively remediate (tastefully) in the core areas while facilitating real world relationships with community members in both white and blue collar sectors to show demonstrable value of an education, the kid would likely stay on to graduate.

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