Saturday, March 11, 2006


There was a recent posting on another list I belong to regarding the number of dropouts in the United States and the reasons for doing so.

After scanning the article, I am pondering two things:

1) Many of the dropouts complain that classes are "boring"and not relevant to their lives. "Boring", as the report does discuss a bit, can mean too easy or too hard or simply not entertaining. One of the recommendations of the report was that teachers try to make their classes more relevant and more interesting. But, in many respects, I think teachers are doing a reasonable job in this regard. The problem is that this generation of kids is used to not only TV, but also the Internet, Instant Messaging, hand-held games, etc., etc. How can teachers even hope to compete with all of the other distractions available to kids these days?

As many of you know, I have been a substitute teacher off and on for the past few years and have therefore seen a wide variety of American classrooms. It is true that a few of them are routine and uninteresting, but, in my experience, most of the teachers are really trying to make their classes interesting.  But kids are quite jaded these days. It is as though they need ever higher doses of "fun" just to keep them motivated to do anything at all. And if it isn't fun, the only thing that seems to work is threat - bad grades or talking to a parent. I see very few kids who are really excited about the subject matter. I was in a 3rd grade class this week that was really excited about writing, but that is such an anomaly that it really stood out in my mind.

2) Is it possible that the dropout problem would be better viewed as a lack of alternative pathways? When I was a foreign student in Germany 40 years ago, they had what they called the "zweite Bildungsweg", which was a second pathway to the type of education that the student wanted.  There seemed to be a conscious effort to accommodate
students who wanted to change their education course.  Maybe if we made a concerted effort to establish more
apprenticeships, or similar entry level jobs, and meld them to part-time education, we could change "dropping out" to beginning a work progression. Maybe "lack of relevance" to their lives could be changed into specific coursework needed for their chosen job path.

I have long been interested in different structural ways of reforming American education. By structural, I mean the organization of bringing teachers and students together, not by changing the curriculum directly or by improving teacher education (both of which are worthwhile, just not what I consider structural changes), but rather by altering who is put in contact with whom and when. E.g., putting a cluster of gifted kids in one classroom, rather than spreading them out among many teachers is a structural change; having each teacher differentiate the curriculum for each of the gifted students is not what I would consider to be a structural change.