Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pinpointing reasons for dropping out

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Robert Balfanz is an accomplished, even famous researcher. But he also has one foot firmly planted in the reality of a high school, which anchors him and his research in the raw, complicated realities of being a kid these days, particularly an urban kid.

As the co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center, at Johns Hopkins University, Balfanz’ research examines huge samples of students from sixth grade on, to see who drops out, why, when, and what can be done to prevent it.

But as the co-operator of the Baltimore Talent Development High School, he strolls the hallways, asking actual kids what’s going on with them, especially when there’s trouble. He strongly recommends everyone get in the habit of asking kids what’s going on. Because, “It’s stunning to know what they have to overcome to come to school. One says: ‘I have to give my guardian her insulin shot. I don’t trust anyone else.’ ”

Kids with family obligations are often late to school or absent, and this behavior doesn’t get any better by giving the child punitive detentions, or more absurdly, suspensions. Too often, the message to struggling kids is: I don’t know you, nor do I want to. Your home situation does not excuse you from the rules!

America’s Promise, Colin and Alma Powell’s organization, has teamed up with other philanthropic giants to “help communities tackle the dropout crisis,” as their brochure reads. They’re sponsoring dropout summits in all 50 states. The one here was organized by Rhode Island Kids Count and the Department of Education. Balfanz served as their keynote speaker.

Nationally, about one-third of all high-school students drop out. In cities it’s closer to half. About a third of those who do graduate do not have work or college-ready skills. So dropouts are a glaring image of schools’ general struggles to educate kids who have their hands full trying to survive tough modern lives.

Balfanz says, “The first thing we have to know is who drops out, why and where from?” Ah, know the kids; know their reasons. Balfanz has found four “buckets” of dropouts.

The first group are what he calls the “life-events” kids, the ones derailed by things that have nothing to do with school — a pregnancy, an arrest, a family move, a sudden need to work. Each reason for derailment will probably need its own response. But at a minimum they need a second chance, a way to recover themselves and finish high school or get access to dual enrollment in a college.

And as to kids who get in trouble with the law, Balfanz says, “Juvenile justice needs to achieve its mission instead of just punishing the kids.” Amen to that. The justice system routinely reduces the kids’ chances for success. The system needs to restore offenders to full, productive membership in their home communities, instead of just whacking them and assuming they’ll learn something positive from that.

The second group are what Balfanz calls “the fade-outs.” “They’re not acting out and they’re getting OK grades. But they don’t see the point of school. Work experience seems more relevant and in the exuberance of youth ...” Balfanz trails off as we in the audience imagine the clueless kid heading out into the streets to seek his fortune.

The third group are the “push-outs.” These are the kids that parents, teachers and kids alike wish were gone. They’re often overaged, short many credits, and nastily defensive as a result of their failures. Some push-outs are hopeless, which makes everyone around them equally hopeless.

The best solution for these students is to stop the problem before it starts. I know, big help. Keep reading.

Of the last, and by far the largest group, Balfanz says, “Most dropouts are kids failing to succeed, who are in schools failing to help them succeed. Often they’ve had a short stay in an alternative school or have repeated a grade. As early as sixth grade, they’re waving their arms and saying ‘I’m going to drop out.’ Initially they’re missing a few days, and that becomes months. We know who they are. Half to 75 percent of drop-outs can be identified in sixth grade. This is like insider trading for a good cause.”

You can identify the sixth graders with Balfanz’ A B Cs, Attendance, Behavior and Course patterns. He suggests chronic poor attendance is an excellent place to start focusing. In his huge sample of actual or soon-to-be dropouts, over a quarter had missed a full year of school by accumulating missed days and weeks here and there. Suspensions only add to the days missed.

As to the kids who are failing, parents and teachers often feel they’re not trying. But many are struggling with being underprepared. They need help recovering lost academic ground. They do not need to be punished by being held back. That just pushes them into the “push-out” category.

Balfanz summed up his portraits of the dropouts with, “We face a giant engineering problem. We need to get the right intervention to the right kid, at the right time.”

But first we have to know them. Keeping kids at arm’s length is the source of much dropout damage. Some schools, certain charters come to mind, deploy their limited resources to make sure adults have time to know the students and to respond to the harsh realities of modern kids’ needs by building internal systems or partnering with outside agencies. These schools need to be commended and emulated.

Balfanz authored “Grad Nation,” an optimistic, clear-eyed and practical guidebook for communities, available on America’s Promise Web site, . Or in “What Your Community Can Do” on

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