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A Statehouse hearing last week rightly highlighted Massachusetts’ inability to address high dropout rates, especially in poorer and large urban public school districts. Most of the proposals missed the mark, recommending new funding, new positions, and new programs. The commonwealth would be wiser to draw lessons from programs successful in addressing dropouts — and there are several important ones.
The annual statewide average dropout rate is 2.9 percent, which rolls up to almost 12 percent over four years of high school. Our urban and low-income districts are hardest hit, with dropout rates that sometimes reach above 30 percent.
When trying to solve this problem, one must keep in mind the causes. National studies like The Silent Epidemic, a 2006 report by John M. Bridgeland, John J. DiIulio Jr., and Karen Burke Morison, demonstrate that there are two reasons kids decide to dropout: Classes are boring, and students are not motivated or inspired to work hard.
Right now, there are three proven ways to reduce dropout rates that address this problem: regional vocational-technical schools, digital learning, and a serious refocusing on academic learning.
The dropout rate in the Massachusetts’ 26 autonomous regional vocational-technical schools is 0.9 percent annually, or less than one-third the statewide average; and it is declining at an impressive rate. Our regional voc-tech schools serve a far greater number of special needs students, and their success in addressing the dropout rate is all the more impressive because of significant academic gains in student achievement over the past decade. These schools succeed because of their unique attributes, which include close adult supervision, individualized instruction to clear goals, and student choice.
Wherever possible, urban voc-techs should be allowed the autonomy enjoyed by their regional peers. Such a move would be politically difficult because it would mean separating the urban voc-techs from the local school districts and superintendent. The benefits, though, are worth the political fight.
A second necessary step to address dropout rates would be to implement the 2010 law, which meant to expand digital learning opportunities in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, state education bureaucrats promulgated regulations later in 2010 that placed geographical and other restrictions on digital learning. We applaud efforts by legislators like Marty Walz and Will Brownsberger to rescind those regulations. Massachusetts is losing ground to states like Florida, where virtual schooling is a viable alternative educational option that has helped thousands of students, including those at risk of dropping out, learn at their own pace.
Finally, if students often drop out because they find school meaningless, we need to re-infuse schools with meaning, refocusing on their core mission: academics.
But should it be any surprise that students are bored or find school meaningless when schools are not delivering on their core mission? Many urban districts with the highest dropout rates have never developed local curricula aligned with Massachusetts’ academic standards. This problem will only be exacerbated by the state Board of Elementary Education’s 2010 decision to replace the commonwealth’s best-in-the-nation standards with weaker national ones.
District alignment of state standards goes to the very core of public education and speaks of the ongoing need for teachers and administrators to focus on English, mathematics, science and history as the foundation of students’ education. In particular, it highlights the urgent need for students of all backgrounds to access the liberal arts and the broad knowledge necessary to succeed in high school, college, and life.
Furthermore, by not aligning local district curricula with the state standards, many urban districts have for years put their students in the position of being tested on material they have never seen. That is the fastest way to disengage students.
Many of the bills debated last week were familiar calls for new funding for extra programs that will take educators’ attention away from their core academic mission. If state leaders want to reduce dropout rates, they would be better served to focus on tools that have demonstrated their effectiveness.
Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based, market-oriented think tank.
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