Kelly Procter's Response follows...

Edwatch by Julia Steiny: Dropouts must be heard

01:00 AM EST on Sunday, March 26, 2006

Roughly one-third of all American public-school students drop out before graduation, and the rate among black and Hispanic students is more like 50 percent.

So researchers went out to interview and survey a large sample of high-school dropouts -- from rural Nebraska to inner-city Los Angeles -- to find out what the dropouts themselves thought had gone wrong. After all, failing to prepare such a large proportion of our youth weakens the quality of the work force, drives up the need for social services later on, but worst of all, financially cripples a lot of lives.

The resulting report, "The Silent Epidemic," (URL at the end) paints what is for me a painful picture of widespread social disengagement. In the lives of this sample of dropouts -- now between 16 and 25 -- there just wasn't much interpersonal glue. No one -- parents, students, teachers, community members -- seemed to be much invested in connecting these teenagers to school. Yes, the dropouts generally regretted their decision. But their recommendations for how to help others avoid making the same mistake had mostly to do with organizing engaging relationships -- better teaching, adult advisers, stronger home-school communication.

What really caught me by surprise was that fully 88 percent of the report's sample of kids had passing grades. Seventy percent felt confident that they could have met the graduation requirements. So even though a high school diploma was well within reach, it just wasn't worth it to these kids to spend more time in a tedious, irrelevant and interpersonally unconnected place.

Almost half reported that they dropped out because the classes were boring and often too easy. The content was irrelevant to their concerns.

While they complained at length about feeling unconnected to the teachers, I was also surprised to see that as many as 41 percent of these ex-students said they could talk to a teacher or someone in the building about personal problems. Rhode Island's SALT survey asks the same question each year, and with the standout exception of the Met School, all Rhode Island students report significantly lower levels of a personal connection. Fully 56 percent of the dropouts said they could talk to a teacher about academic problems. Rhode Island's high school students average 48 percent. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that our schools are even less caring than the low national average.

The dropouts report that it would have made a huge difference to them if someone, pretty much anyone -- parent, teacher, counselor -- had been so involved with them that they would not have risked disappointing or upsetting them. They urged schools to organize so every students has at least one strong adult- student relationship, just as the research has been recommending for 40 years now. (Sigh)

The kids also felt it would have made a difference if the school had made more of an effort to rope in their parents, to contact them quickly at the first sign of trouble, and to be more aggressive about insisting on their involvement. Of course, at the time, the adolescent was begging the parent not to come to school. But schools need to help parents understand that their job is to stay involved even when the kid protests.

Many report feeling they had too much freedom, which is to say little or no resistence to their impulses, however self-destructive. Parents are disengaged; schools are disengaging and the kids are cut loose from social bonds to go off and do as they please, until such time as their families get sick of supporting their mooching butts. It's at that point, when the dropouts must go out and look for work, that they deeply regret leaving high school.

When, oh when are we going to learn that our culture's social disengagement -- sadly replicated inside of most schools -- is the quicksand on which we're trying to build a strong education system.

When America's students compete unfavorably in international tests, rarely does anyone note that our kids are competing with nations that have comparatively intact social systems -- strong extended families, low rates of residential mobility (except among new immigrant populations) and stable communities. The wealthier of these countries have universal healthcare and even daycare to support their kids. (I'm no big socialist, but these two social services must make a huge difference to the health and general anxiety of many families.) Of the competing industrialized nations, the U.S. has -- hand's down -- the highest rates of teen-pregnancy, suicide, homicide, substance abuse, divorce, single- parenting, mobility and on and on.

From the kids' point of view, the social fabric has disintegrated to the point where it just doesn't support them.

But according to the National Center on Education Statistics, the United States spent just under $450 billion on public education last year alone. That $450 billion says to me that the nation's public school system is already organized, staffed and funded such that it could offer every single student an adult advocate during his or her time in K-12 schooling. School staff often complain that it isn't their job to care for the kids. But given what a lack of care does to the schools' dropout statistics, never mind the test scores, you would think they'd just bite the bullet on this one, and see to it that every child is known well by at least one adult. From that personal understanding of their students, teachers might be able to figure out how education could be more engaging.

At the secondary level, each professional could take groups of 12 to 15 students for 15, 20 minutes each day for the duration of that kid's time in school. This is called "adviseries." Elementary teachers, who are usually less distant from their kids in the first place, need much better social service support so they can be more involved with the families. All schools can be much clearer about their expectations for parenting successful students.

No fancy curriculum, spiffy new building, off-the-shelf program, anti-bullying initiative or improvement committee is going to change drop-out rates substantially. Already parents, teachers and guidance counselors drone on and on about the liabilities of dropping out of school, and still kids leave in droves. Everyone's got to start thinking about education from the point of view of the kids. I certainly don't mean we should avoid Algebra I or those classics the kids whine about. We need to think again about how to teach them, given who the kids actually are, and not who we wish they were.

"The Silent Epidemic" is available at .

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at or c/o The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.

Kelly Procter's Response:

Dear Ms. Steiny:


I have responded to a number of your articles in the past, but have never received acknowledgement.  In spite of your lack of effort to recognize that there is always more than your side of the story, I feel the need to once again weigh in on some of your reprehensible comments about public education.


Your article dated 3/26/06 regarding high school dropouts had some valid points, suggestions that have been researched and proven by high schools, and unfortunately some negative, untrue, and downright ignorant accusations.


Your statements are supposedly based on conversations with actual high school dropouts.  I wondered how many, from where, and whether or not you checked the validity of their statements.  Is that not what all good journalists should do prior to print?  Your data suggests that 88% of such dropouts had passing grades, this is one of the many statistics that I would have liked to seen corroborated by their high school transcripts.  I would offer that if you dare to check the validity of such a statement, you would find that it is not only inaccurate, but abysmally over exaggerated.


As a high school social studies teacher I battle every day to keep students motivated, engaged, and challenged, while also nurturing their affective souls.  Teachers may have approximately 125 students each semester, and I challenge you to ask any one of my students if they think I care about them and their future.  They ALL will say YES!


You stated that “you should not be surprised that our schools are even less caring than the low national average.”   Would you in fact be surprised to know that my district does in fact have an advisory period for students every other day; that we do offer parenting classes, that all high school teachers are required to create personal improvement plans for and with students who are in danger of failing a course (this is done very early in the year, and monitored throughout the course), and that we offer a variety of academic, elective, and vocational courses for students to choose from.


You also stated that schools and teachers must be “more insistent and aggressive about insisting on parent involvement.”  I was hoping that you could tell me what else I can do after I have called, written, begged, and even threatened parents about the tenuous future of their children?  In the past I have created a homework hotline for parents to call, a shadow your student for a day program, a can you do what your child does evening where parents are familiarized with the content standards and participate in actual hands-on activities that their children have completed, and several other day and evening programs to get parents involved in their children’s academics.  Would you also be surprised to know that parental participation in such endeavors averages around 30%?


Finally you say that “school staff often complain that it isn’t their job to care for kids.” Again, I say prove that statement!  All teachers care about kids, the degree to which they feel adept or qualified to assist students in some of their emotional needs may in deed vary greatly.  What would you say to a young lady who confided in you that she was pregnant and did not know if it was her boyfriend’s or mother’s boyfriend’s child?  I sent her to speak to someone more qualified than me!


Teachers cannot be there for all 125 students each time a crisis arises, but when we are there for a crisis, we address it and worry about the outcome, these are our children too, and we do care about them!


In closing, I offer the following suggestion: prior to writing your next article about public educators, come work along side of us for two to three weeks; plan, teach, correct, care, learn, and struggle to make a difference in the lives of so many.  Then sit down to write a firsthand account of your findings.


I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these and other matters with you at your convenience. 




Kelly Procter, NBCT