Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bill White’s Big Dropout Problem

It has come to our attention, and perhaps to yours, too, that Bill White is under the misimpression that Texas’s “dropout problem,” as he undoubtedly has phrased it somewhere along the line, is the hobby horse he’ll be able to flay straight into the under-repair Governor’s Mansion. It also appears that White is blaming Rick Perry for the problem, or at the very least suggesting that Perry hasn’t done anywhere near enough to keep those hard-working, knowledge-starved kids in school. (We must shrug and stipulate into the record here that, as best we can recall, we have never voted for Perry for any office, and we’re unlikely to do so this year, although, as with all things in heaven and on earth, we’re open to the possibility, in the unlikely event that Perry says or does something that impresses us.) The issue flared last week when, according to this story in the local newspaper, White and Perry argued over the extent of the, um, problem, with White proclaiming that “nearly 1 million Texas students have failed to graduate or get a GED on time” during the nine years Perry has been governor and Perry riposting that “the [number] that Mr. White uses is taking the number of kids starting their freshmen year and then the ones that graduate in four years the following May or June. If a child dies, they count that as a dropout. I think that's a little harsh.”

Now this particular debate over numbers strikes as being almost as meaningless as the semantic one over whether Houston is a “sanctuary” city ('tis what it is, y’know), although we have to give Perry comedy points for his baldly risible assertion that child mortality is is a factor in whatever the actual dropout numbers are. On the larger issue that White has been raising, however, we must rise again, all by our lonesome it seems, to point out what no other member of the Mainstream News and Infotainment Media has the wit, or the stick, to point out, and that is this: Bill White doesn’t have any more of a clue than Rick Perry about how to fix the “dropout problem” (we’re using quotes here because we are not fully convinced that the self-selecting clearing-out of the schools by teenagers who don’t want to be there is an entirely bad thing, but that’s pretty much beside the point we’re driving at, so let us keep our eyes on the road and our hands upon the wheel).

So far White has a little better than nothing, zilch, but clownish and ill-advised catchphrases and gusts of hot air, such as, “The governor is more interested in his own future than the future of Texans.” Yeah, that’s probably 'cause Rick Perry hates kids and wants them to be failures. You can see it in his eyes. And we all remember his wildly successful “Drop Out of School Right Now, Ninos” campaign. The Chronicle story kinda-sorta pointed out White’s nearly empty basket:
White, the son of public school educators, conceded there is no single or easy answer to the problem.

“You need to start early with early childhood education,” he said. “You need to offset summer learning loss (programs) for those elementary school kids who do not have access to books and computers at home during the summer. You need to have more flexible programs that accommodate and support those students in their attempt to graduate who must work when they are in high school.”
Oh, it’s not like anybody ever thought of that before, or tried it. Scouring White’s campaign Web site last week, we saw the first item under the heading “reducing the dropout rate” was this classic example of Bill White’s full-court noblesse:
When a student drops out of school, it must be treated as an emergency, not just another statistic. In Houston we launched Expectation Graduation to cut the dropout rate. For example, each fall, my wife Andrea and I led thousands of volunteers to go to the homes of high school students who have not returned to school. Approximately 8,800 students have returned to school as a result, and this initiative has been replicated in communities across Texas.
Yes, that’ll do it: A statewide version of the PR stunt that HISD and now other school districts pull every summer whereby teachers, administrators and concerned-citizen types go to the houses of dropouts to try and talk them back into school. (We are skeptical in the extreme of this 8,000 number and would suggest that some bored journalist –– a journalist, not a publicist –– track, say, 20 of these kids who answer the door when Bill White and Co. come a’knockin’ this summer to see how many of them actually make it back to school, and how many eventually graduate. Ah, but that would be real work and take lots of time and in any case would probably be a downer, so never mind.) There’s was one decent and very modest idea that White appears to have made, which we can't do justice to at this moment because the "issues" link on his site isn't loading, but it had something to do forging closer links between schools and businesses that employ students in after-school jobs.

If White were serious about the dropout problem and not just trying to warp reality by blaming Perry, he'd buck up and demonstrate some of the intestinal fortitude his successor as mayor seems to possess by doing the following:

1. Call for the immediate end of "bilingual" classes in Texas public schools in favor of strict and unrelenting English immersion for all students. This is one of our frequent hobby horses, so we’ll just direct your attention to this Heather McDonald article exploring how, as the author put is, the “curtailment of California’s bilingual-education industry” and its “counterintuitive linguistic claims” have led to slightly higher test scores for Hispanic students in that state. The “dropout problem" is not, of course, exclusively a Hispanic problem, but in large urban school districts it is a disproportionately Hispanic one, and anyone who thinks the early-grades barrio-izing of non-English-speaking Spanish speakers doesn’t contribute, directly, to the “dropout problem” down the road is a fool. White won't do this, of course, because he's already demonstrated a pronounced disinclination to break with Democratic Party orthodoxy, and the fear of course is that such a stand would alienate Hispanic voters, although we'd expect the blowback would be a lot less than you'd imagine among Mexican-Americans who actually vote (and speak English). But White needs to do this, not just because it's the right thing (always reason enough), but because he requires his own "Sister Souljah" moment ––and this, unlike Clinton's, would be a moment on something that actually matters–– if he wants to avoid having “Lost to Rick '39 Percent' Perry in First Bid for Statewide Office” as his next resume entry. This is a no-brainer when it comes to sound public policy. Maybe that's why we can't recall Rick Perry ever having anything to say on the subject, either.

2. Call for an immediate end to the requirement that students must complete four years of math, four years of science, four years of English, etc., to graduate high school. This, too, would skirt the boundaries of bipartisan heresy –– that no man's land where Bill White has rarely ventured –– because it would implicitly acknowledge the cold fact, verifiable by 4,000 years of human experience, that not all kids are cut out to master Algebra II. What you could do instead is retain the 4-year requirements for a college-bound track of study but offer an alternative for kids who’d rather learn some vocational skills and who probably aren't going to get a whole out of reading, say, Love in the Time of Cholera. Beginning with or just after 9th grade, the bewitching hour for most dropouts, the non-college track would consist of three hours in the morning of intense instruction and/or remediation in math and language arts, with three more hours after lunch devoted to the teaching of skills (plural) that will come in handy in the workplace. The choice of tracks would up to the student and his parents. This, too is no-brainer, but come to think of it we can't recall Rick Perry saying much on the subject (maybe he has and we missed it).

3. Start addressing the nettlesome and unpleasant cultural factors that are the main contributor to the “dropout problem.” Take to the bully pulpit and emphasize that it’s not a good idea for 12-year-old “shorties” to be having more shorties. Suggest to parents that it’s an equally bad idea to pull their kids out of school for a month in the middle of the semester to go back to Mexico. Explain why it’s not a sound parenting practice for mamas to drop their kindergartners off at school in the morning with the godawful rap music with its “motherfucker this” and “motherfucker that” blaring out of the windows. In other words, start putting the onus where it belongs: on the parents. Because no halfway sensible person is going to look at the "dropout problem" and think Rick Perry's the daddy.


The Fishing Musician said...

I have voted for Rick many times. I had the opportunity to spend several hours with he and a small group socially several years ago. He's a drummer, and we talked drumming and criminal law for two hours.

I'm disappointed in White. I'd hope he would take the high ground and be a gentleman. I hope White doesn't have Perry blame Houston's high teen prego rate or crack use rate on him personally.

As usual, a well written essay. I would only add that the fourth problem that needs eliminating is the TAKS test and it's ilk.

The lady who apparently spearheaded the nationwide initiative for standardized testing among school kids 30 years ago WAS WRONG. I can't recall offhand what her name is right now, but I agree that they wuz wrong about standardized testing.

They don't even teach cursive writing in elementary school now because of the focus on the taks. They put so much pressure on these little kids it's unbelieveable, making sure those who don't test well on standardized tests feel like losers. They have taks test pep rallys at el fisho jr's school, for God's sake.

JC said...

Your point #2 one multi track education is well taken but not acceptable to the "intelligensia" (and yes, those are sneer quotes, thank you for noticing).
It is now the received wisdom that evveruh chile is entitled to a "free" (to wit taxpayer funded)((yes, sneer again) college or university education.
Most of the vaunted Euro countries take vo-track and and 'varsity-track for granted, and the workforce doesn't seem to be suffering too poorly for those who attend those tracks.
If a 16 year old Hispanic drops out and takes a job with his uncle Diego in his A/C business, he's been transformed into a taxpayer rather than a debit, and is acquiring a skill that will serve him and his customers well.
I could go on further with this, but the ideas are so good I must post them to my own blog, sorry.

Slampo said...

El, I'm agnostic on the TAKS, but I think No Child Left Behind pretty much mandates the states have some form of accountability testing, and besides, the public wants and deserves a method of measuring the schools it pays for, and I'm not sure there's any other fair and halfway objective manner of doing that. But it needs to be seriously de-emphasized. Where it's gone off the rails is the monomaniacal emphasis on "closing the achievement gap" and the "average yearly progress" measurement and all the other pie-in-the-sky BS whose end result is going to be that the truly exceptional teachers aren't going to get anywhere near the schools where they're needed, no matter how much extra enticement pay they're offered.

Anonymous said...

I'm the first person in my family on either side to have a college degree. I'm the oldest of seven. All my sibs had the chance to go to college. Five did and left/busted out.

I'm not smarter than they are. The difference, I think, may shed some light on drop-outs, even high-school drop-outs.

Number one, I had lousy summer jobs, hot and dirty, and I quickly decided I wanted a job in the air conditioning. The only way to do that was to get some education. It's easier to behave in class if you know the alternative is dragging a sack between rows of cotton or if you remember the dust from bales of hay itching in every crevice of your body.

Once upon a time, such attitudes were common in 14-15 year olds. They knew -- or, really, their parents knew -- that a kid without an education would have to do common labor to eat. (Having a relative who lost both legs in a train accident and seeing men who's lost digits in saw mills, etc, reinforced my bias against common labor. ... Laborers I often like; it's hot, hard work that I hate!)

Anyway, today, you don't have to work to eat. That is the primary problem with education ... kids and their parents don't know, don't remember that once education determined how you smelled! They don't know that choosing to throw away an opportunity to get an education is choosing back-breaking work ... because that no longer is true.

With the softest of hearts, we've undercut the foundation of effective schools and good behavior in school. That foundation is the universal, brutal alternative to not getting an education, the hard, dirty, hot work that leaves a man broken down at age 40 and wishing he'd developed the discipline to behave in school and study to get an education.

By the way, notice that the idiom still is "get an education." It can't be given to you or injected or absorbed by osmosis. You have to reach and get an education.

Miguel Larsen Lone Star, TX said...

This is more political posturing by Bill White who would try and have us believe the dropout rate in Texas is the fault of the present governor.

The battle to keep kids in school begins at home, not in Austin, Texas. All parents must step up to the plate and take an active part in their child's education and see to it that it starts in the home.

If anyone believes Bill White or any politician is the cure for fixing the dropout rate, then you believe he somehow is going to be able to do something about broken homes, the divorce rate and single parent children which are all root causes of the drop out rate and not who the sitting governor is.

Bill Betzen said...

If Bill Wright were to understand and adopt the following "Texas Dropout Prevention two-step" he may become our next governor a bit more easily, and then really change Texas!

For the first step in this “Texas Dropout Prevention Two-step” he must help us all to more easily understand how bad the dropout rates are in almost every Texas school. Every school and school district should have a multi-year enrollment by grade spreadsheet, with graduation numbers for each year. When such annually updated spreadsheets, going back a decade or more, are easy to find for every school on school district websites we will have a way to easily follow dropout rate fluctuations year to year.

Such transparency will initially make people angry, but this gives us a place to start. We can then track progress using more easily audit-able data with minimal potential for staff manipulation, and at very minimal expense. It only involves placing already collected data into a spreadsheet and then online.

For the second step in the “Texas Dropout Prevention Two-step” Mr. White must understand that while the many efforts being tried to lower dropout rates (home visits, daytime curfews, truancy fines, etc...) can help, these efforts should never receive more attention, media time, or human effort than the ultimate goals of education itself: self-improvement.

Our students must want to stay in school for the right reasons, not because the classroom is an effective detention facility!

The second step is to focus students on their own futures in as concrete and physical a way as is possible. To achieve this future focus a Dallas middle school started the School Archive Project in 2005. It is a 10-year time capsule and class reunion project. It involves a 350 pound vault bolted to the floor in the school lobby to function as the 10-year time-capsule. This School Archive holds letters 8th grade students write to themselves about their history and plans for the future. Students place their letter, and also often a letter from their parents, or a teacher, about their dreams for that student, into one envelope. At the end of the year there is a small ceremony wherein they pose in front of the School Archive vault with their Language Arts class holding their sealed letters for a photo. They then place their letters inside the vault.

Students receive a copy of this photo with information on the back about their 10-year class reunion. They are reminded that they will be invited at that reunion to speak with then current 8th grade classes about their recommendations for success. They are warned to prepare for questions such as; “Would you do anything differently if you were 13 again?”

Thinking of answering such a question in 10 years helps students realize the value of current school work. They must build their own futures. Nobody is going to do it for them.

The first students to write letters for the School Archive graduated in 2009 as members of the largest 12th grade class in over a decade! The Class of 2010 again set graduation rate records!

This project has now spread to 6 schools within Dallas ISD. It is a simple project helping teachers do what they have always done, focus students onto their own futures.

At a cost that is about a dollar per child per year, it is a project all schools should be involved in. It only requires one dedicated teacher as project manager who is also interested in motivating their students to write more, to better understand the flow of time and history, and to find more value in education.

Bill Betzen
The School Archive Project
Quintanilla Middle School
Dallas, Texas