It's Deeper Than You Think

Many students drop out because of academic failure, behavioral problems, and life issues, but many more students stay in school but drop out in their heads, gradually disengaging from what the schools have to offer.
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In his State of the Union Address, President Obama gave special attention to education and particularly to the persistent problem of high school dropouts. This is not the first time that the president has used a major speech to highlight this problem. Back in February 2009, in a speech to the Joint Session of Congress, the president stated that dropping out "is no longer an option." Sadly, however, it remains an option for many young people. With about 1.3 million young people leaving high school each year without a diploma, surely, as Linda, Willy Loman's wife, said, "Attention must be paid," to both the problem and to the young people themselves.

Like the president, we have been paying attention for many years and have come to see the problem of dropouts as part of a much larger and more pervasive one: student disengagement from their schools, communities, and from productive learning. This disengagement is particularly strong and pervasive in poor urban and rural communities, where the forces for disengagement are more formidable, and the resources for engagement more limited.

Through our work, we have identified several reasons for high levels of student disengagement. Young people feel that who they are and what they want to become does not matter much to schools. While students are required to fit into a restrictive school structure, culture, and curriculum, the schools do little to fit themselves to their students. Students feel their talents are ignored and that schools provide few opportunities to develop them.

Many students drop out because of academic failure, behavioral problems, and life issues, but many more students stay in school but drop out in their heads, gradually disengaging from what the schools have to offer. Students pass the tests, get passing grades, and eventually graduate. They limp to a tainted graduation and a diploma that papers over their lack of readiness for successful postsecondary learning and work. These students are just off the radar screen of those early warning systems schools have devised to detect potential dropouts.

Researchers have calculated the cost of dropouts to society but have missed the significantly larger cost of disengaged students who actually graduate from high school but who are, nonetheless, unprepared for lifelong learning and whose talents and potential have been sadly ignored, often because those talents reside just outside the traditional subject matter bins of a cognitive-abstract curriculum.

Just as schools have "high expectations" of their students, young people have high expectations of their schools. Through our work with young people, we have identified 10 such expectations, which we call The Essentials. These expectations constitute the "rules for engagement" in the new relationship that young people want with their schools.

Relationships: Do my teachers, and others who might serve as my teachers, know about me and my interests and talents?

Relevance: Do I find what the school is teaching to be relevant to my interests?

Authenticity: Is the learning and work I do regarded as significant outside of school by experts, my family, community members, and employers?

Application: Do I have opportunities to apply what I am learning in real-world settings and contexts?

Choice: Do I have real choices about what, when, and how I will learn and demonstrate my competence?

Challenge: Do I feel appropriately challenged in my learning and work?

Play: Do I have opportunities to explore and to make mistakes, and learn from them, without being branded as a failure?

Practice: Do I have opportunities to engage in deep and sustained practice of those skills I need to learn?

Time: Do I have sufficient time to learn at my own pace?

Timing: Can I pursue my learning out of the standard sequence?

Might the key to addressing the dropout problem be to not address just the dropout problem alone? We think so. We recall the reminder that became a meme made popular by James Carville, President Clinton's former campaign advisor. "It's the economy, stupid." Carville's direction was a reminder to himself to stay focused on the right issue. And we have been reminding ourselves that "It's disengagement, stupid" that should focus our attention.

The education system focuses on dropouts, which it attempts to solve by creating early warning systems that tag potential dropouts for special attention. But we should not fool ourselves. This is an old magician's trick. We are watching the dropout issue but getting distracted from the deeper and more pervasive problem of student disengagement.


Could the misdirection of our attention be motivated by an unconscious unwillingness to undertake the much more fundamental changes that would be necessary to deliver the Essentials and thereby engage all students in productive learning? After all, addressing the dropout problem does not require that schools change the way they operate. School life can go on as usual even as schools create a special set of interventions for potential dropouts.

The relationship between schools and their students is going south and reaching epic proportions within our nation's high schools. Hundreds of alternative schools around the country are attempting to change that relationship, but they typically constitute a stick-on patch for a system that requires fundamental redesign, a safety valve that inadvertently reduces the pressure for more fundamental and widespread reform.

The needle has not moved appreciably in the almost three years between the president's two calls for action. Could it be that the system has been kicking the can down the road? Is it now ready to address the deeper issue of student disengagement? We hope so. It's Essential!

Elliot Washor is Co-Founder of Big Picture Learning, a global leader in education innovation with fifty highly successful schools throughout America and forty in the European Union, the Middle East, and Australia. Charles Mojkowski is an independent consultant and a Senior Associate at Big Picture Learning.

The authors are just completing a book on student disengagement and dropouts to be published in September by Heinemann Press.

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