Friday, January 27, 2012

High School Dropouts, Part I

I was going to hold off on posting this until I could dig up something I'd written on this about a year ago, but it's been gnawing at me.  So, I'm posting this now, and I may update it or add another post when I find my other essay, if there's more I decide I need to say.  

The other night, President Obama gave his State of the Union address.  I didn't watch it; I never watch them.  I can't stand the politicking.  Instead, I usually read the transcript when it's released, and there's always enough commentary everywhere else for me to know if there were any flubs or dramatic moments.

In his speech the other night, the President made this comment:

We also know that when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma.  When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.  So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.  (Applause.) 

Well, Mr. President, I respectfully-but-vehemently disagree, and I am happy to come to Washington to explain why.  (Since that's not likely to happen, I'll explain it here, instead.) 

I don't have metrics to argue that your claim that when students are "not allowed to drop out, they do better," is inaccurate, but I'm willing to guess that you mean to say that students who complete high school do better, on average.  I don't disagree with that. But to say that we are going to force students to stay in high school until 18 is a dangerous and ignorant idea.

What?  How can I say that?  Simple.

When students who don't want to be in school are forced to stay, they become a cancer on everyone and everything, and a drain on resources.  Any teacher who has taught a high schooler whose sole focus was on counting the days 'til he (or she) could drop out, understands this.  In some cases it's easy enough to let the kid sleep, praying that the class disruptions are minimized, and receive the grades he (I'm going with "he" here, for the ease of reading, but substitute "she" if you prefer) earns.  But nowadays let an administrator walk into your classroom and see a kid sleeping in the back corner, and your job is on the line!  They won't even ask you what your professional judgment was to allow that to happen; you let someone choose to not participate?!  You must be the worst teacher in the history of the universe known, and universes as yet unknown.  Judge first, get information later.

Side note:  I once had a kid who had had a very rough night the night before, and of course he came to school the next day.  This kid had a terrible -- well beyond what I think I can even imagine -- home life, and asked me if he could just close his eyes for the day.  Without a millisecond of doubt, I said, "absolutely," and let him rest in the corner.  That was my judgment and my discretion, and it meant the kid was safe, not embarrassed, and for 50 minutes he knew he could at least close his eyes without fear of what might happen at home, or a teacher rapping on his desk to wake him up.  That he even felt comfortable asking me was a testament to the fact that I was doing a good job as a teacher and had reached him, at least in some small way.  That teachers have had even the smallest bits of professional discretion stripped from them and something like this likely couldn't happen anymore, hurts my heart.

The problem is that most of the time when you have a student who doesn't want to be there, it's not just the matter of letting him "chill" in the corner and worrying only that he sets a poor example.  Most of the time, that student takes an active role in setting a bad example and being disruptive.   This wastes everyone's time.  As I have heard, and often repeated, "You have a right to choose to fail.  You don't have a right to affect everyone else's ability to pass."  When you take a belligerent student who doesn't want to be there and force him not only to be there, but to "participate," what you get is one angry student who is now empowered to negatively affect everyone else in that classroom.  Why should the good kids -- and when I say that, I don't necessarily mean the earnest kids, but just any and every kid at any and every level who doesn't plan to drop out, and so by default, wants to be there -- be punished because some educrat or politician decided that no one can drop out?  What benefit does that hold?

In any event, anyone who has ever been a teenager knows that there's no forcing teenagers to do what they don't want to do.  Sure, we can say they can't drop out, but we can't force them to pass their classes, or to learn. Seriously, Mr. President, haven't you ever heard of leading a horse to water?  You can lead the entire corral to the creek, Sir, but you can't make even one of 'em take even a sip if they don't want to.  One of my favorite colleagues ever -- he's now retired, but as luck would have it also happened to be CAM's godfather's favorite teacher ever (small world that I ended up teaching where he went to high school) wanted to drop out.  He ended up being a Marine and doing great things in the world as a Marine, as a businessman, and as a teacher.  But he tells the story of how he wanted to drop out, and nothing anyone said or did was going to change that.  It was only when he was allowed to leave that he decided he wanted to go back, and he was only ever going to figure that out on his own.  After a year away, he realized that for him, school was important.  He went back, and went on to great things.

But now our politicians (who've never taught, mind you, and have only ever been in schools as good students; they draw on the experience of the middle and top to form their opinions and policies, when we're talking here about the bottom) want us to say that you can't drop out until you're 18.  That won't make it wine and roses, Mr. President.  We'll have these kids who don't want to be there, who make it their business to let everyone know they don't want to be there and in doing so, punish the teachers and other students for the fact that the want-to-be-dropout is forced to be there.  Yep, that's great logic.  There's an alternative ...

I know, I know.  What happens to the kids when they do drop out?

Well, I have a solution for this, and I think that for the sake of essay length, I will post that in a separate post later today.  I don't mean to sound like I am avoiding the question, but I have to break this topic up a little.  I've already written a lot, and this type of post doesn't lend itself to photos!

A few years ago, I taught with a lady who taught the lowest possible math class offered at our school.  She was the only one who taught it, and she had the same student three years in a row.  Three years in a row! The kid was -- yep, you got it -- counting the days until he could drop out, and in the meantime he did everything possible short of physically assaulting the teacher, but including verbal abuse, and yet was back in her room, day after day, with only minor reprimands.   The law said he had to be in school, right? BUT WHY?  What benefit did that serve?  What example did it set for the other students?  This kid was as disruptive as the day is long, and the other kids in the class lost value in their own educations for the time wasted on that idiot.  Those kids were being robbed of the education they actually wanted, and desperately needed. Worse, this was a good teacher with potential to become a great teacher, but she eventually left the school because "it wasn't worth it."  The three-peat kid walked away scott-free ... into the world of drop-outs, once he was allowed to do exactly what he wanted to do and said he was going to do to begin with.  Stupid doesn't begin to describe it.  He was a drain on tangible resources and man-hours for processing all his disciplinary paperwork, to be sure; but more importantly he was a drain on the emotional resources of the teacher and took precious class time away from the other kids in the class, who needed every minute of teaching and learning resources they could possible have.

No, Mr. President, ask anyone who has ever taught high school. We don't want the kids who actively don't want to be there.  Let them go.  Please, I implore you, let us let them go.  


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