New Chancellor Must Halt the Dropout Rate
By Howard Dodson
Contrary to popular opinion, continuing to raise the test scores in the public school system is not the biggest challenge facing the new chancellor of New York City’s public schools.
Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have made raising test scores the primary measure of educational performance. Much still needs to be done in this area. However, the number one challenge facing the chancellor and the schools system is stopping the school system’s persistent, horrendous dropout rate that is destroying the lives of 50 percent or more of black and Hispanic students who are enrolled in schools but drop out before they graduate.
Each of them is a casualty of a dysfunctional system that is ultimately failing half of the children it purports to serve. Each is a candidate for a failed, dysfunctional life. The school system is supposed to prepare these young people for life and give them the skills and knowledge needed to successfully negotiate a rapidly changing, demanding world. Yet, for upward of 50 percent of those who enroll, it is doing anything but that. Increases in test scores notwithstanding, there is some question as to whether those students who manage to graduate are equipped to meet the challenges that the 21st century holds for them.
You see, most studies of the educational preparation students need to compete in the 21st century have concluded that they need the equivalent of 16 years of schooling. Neither the public school system nor the structures of higher education we currently have in place are capable of serving more than 10 to 12 percent of the students who actually graduate from school. Colleges and universities now pride themselves in the number of students they do not admit. This, they say, is a reflection of the increasingly competitive nature of their admissions and the high standards they have established and maintained. The other high school graduates who don’t get admitted to four-year colleges see the prospects for their future success declining, if not vanishing.
The societal impact of this underdevelopment of our potential is significant. Without a highly trained educated workforce, our nation will not be able to compete in the larger global political economy. The United States has already slipped from being one of the top-five producers of talent to the 20’s among developed nations. The future of America itself is at stake if these trends continue.
The challenges facing graduates of New York City public schools increase exponentially for dropouts. A significant percentage of those who leave school before graduating are already being tracked to fill the state’s growing prison industrial complex. A disgracefully disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated, like the dropouts, are black and Hispanic young people whom the system has failed. If the options for high school graduates without a college education are so grave, one can imagine the limited life-sustaining, meaningful options that will be available for those 50 percent or more who never graduate.
That the overwhelming majority of those who are at risk (like the majority of children enrolled in New York City public schools) are black and Hispanic is of special concern to me. The New York City public school system was never designed to educate black and Hispanic children. Indeed, for more than 200 years a prevailing assumption questioned whether or not black or Hispanic children could be educated at all. This assumption has influenced the policies and practices that are still alive in the day-to-day functioning of the system. If teachers and educators begin with the assumption that their students can’t learn, you can predict with certainty that they won’t. The high dropout rate is likely a by-product of this systemic malfunction. The new chancellor needs to focus attention on stopping the hemorrhaging — halting this horrendous rate of attrition.
Students’ alienation from the schools is likely a reflection of the New York City public school system’s alienation from them, their history and their culture. The new chancellor needs to root out racists’ assumptions among black as well as white teachers and educators. She needs to reconstruct the educational and learning experiences around the 85 percent “minority” student population rather than continue to assume that what works for the white numerical minority population will work for the true majority. She needs to retrain teachers throughout the system, grounding them in substantive knowledge of the “majority minority.” She needs to consult with dropouts as well as teachers and parents to find out what else is causing them to become disillusioned with school. And she needs to rethink the core curriculum and put a greater emphasis on black and Hispanic history and culture.
The time to start making these changes is now. #
Howard Dodson is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.