TOPICS > Education

St. Louis Teachers Voice Struggles Over Dropouts

November 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Teachers are struggling to find solutions to the high school dropout crisis plaguing the nation. As part of our American Graduate Project series, Gwen Ifill discusses the challenges educators are facing in the classroom with Civic Enterprises' John Bridgeland.

GWEN IFILL: And finally tonight, we turn to our series on the high school dropout problem. Over the next 18 months, the NewsHour is joining with other public media to examine consequences and solutions. The series is called the American Graduate Project.

Last night, we invited more than 100 teachers to a town hall at

9 News Network, our PBS station in St. Louis, to talk about the challenges they face in the classroom.

Here’s a small sample.

DR. CELESTE ADAMS, Riverview Garden High School: We have to look at our students differently now. Classical or traditional education is dead. It’s failing our students.

WOMAN: If you taught concentrated phonics to everyone in first grade — they’re dying to read — they would stand on their heads. But the problem is, they don’t drop out in high school. They drop out in second grade, and they hang around for eight years.

MAN: These children are coming from homes where nobody understands what is positive. No one is educated. So we have a cycle of ignorance, one, two, three, four generations where people don’t have the ability to read.

GWEN IFILL: So, it sounds to me like your focus is on the teachers a much as the students?

STEPHANIE KRAUSS, Shearwater High School: Absolutely. I think that the data would tell us and experience and stories would tell us that you can take an extraordinary teacher who is deeply committed to getting to know the community where they serve and place them just about anywhere, and with the proper support and accountability and training, they can show great academic gains in their students and authentic relationships with those kids and their families.

BARRETT TAYLOR, St. Louis Public Schools: I think teachers play an integral part in the education of kids. But I think teachers get a bad rap in the news. Teachers — the teachers that I work with at Metro High School and at Roosevelt High School work hard every day to educate these kids. I think the parents have to educate their kids.

GWEN IFILL: The question was, in your own experience as a teacher, would you say that the level of community support and involvement in your school is high, medium or low? Twenty-one percent of you said high; 24 percent said medium; 55 percent said low. Ouch.

Was that your sense, that there is not enough community engagement in our schools?

MAN: Well, I think there isn’t.

And, certainly, we can influence both the kids and the community, if we’re given that opportunity. And in this country today, what we’re focusing on instead is, can you answer a multiple choice test, instead of, how do we make you love education? How do we get you to feel that this is something that is meaningful to you? And if we don’t do that, the rest of this is a waste of time.

GWEN IFILL: Throughout our hour-long conversation, those St. Louis teachers repeatedly touched on concerns that resonate nationally.

John Bridgeland has written widely about all this, and his organization, Civic Enterprises, is a partner in the American Graduate Project. He joins us now.

Give us a sense of the scope, the magnitude of this problem.

JOHN BRIDGELAND, Civic Enterprises: So, Gwen, more than a million young people in this country fail to graduate from high school every year, with huge costs to themselves, society and the economy.

Just for context, a young person who drops out of high school will earn a million dollars less than a college graduate over his or her lifetime. But the cost to our economy must prompt action. If we were to cut the dropout rate in half we would save our economy $45 billion every year as a result of productive work force, increased revenues and a decrease in social services like incarceration costs, public assistance and unemployment.

GWEN IFILL: I was struck by the teacher who said last night, this really begins in second grade. They just hang around until the eighth grade before — eight more years before they drop out.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: I found that one of the more powerful statements as well.

GWEN IFILL: Everybody in the room kind of went, mmm.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Yes, happens to be true.

And when we surveyed teachers, they said again and again, we could identify as early as first, second, third grade young people who were kind of on a track to drop out. The research shows that you can predict with great certainty based on a student’s attendance, behavior and course performance in reading and math as early as elementary school, certainly by middle school.

And if that’s true, we can put in place early warning systems in schools and give data to teachers and counselors and parents to help keep these young people on track.

GWEN IFILL: I was also interested in the teacher at the very beginning of our excerpt there who said that classical, traditional education is dead. And several other teachers said we should go to where they are, not bring them to where we are by testing or other methods.

Is that what you found?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Yes. It’s so interesting. We discovered that, after years of research, no one had ever talked to the customer, to the dropouts themselves.

And so we did a survey, and we discovered that these young people wanted to see a connection between what they wanted to be, what they saw in the real world, and what they were learning in the classroom. And we know that our traditional school system is failing a million kids a year. And if that’s true, we have a systemic problem. And we need to be much more intelligent about providing multiple pathways of education.

GWEN IFILL: The elephant in that room last night with 100-plus teachers is the fact that teachers often are the ones who are blamed for this. They’re the — we have got to fix teachers, we have got to fix teachers by testing them more rigorously.

How much is that true?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Well, we do know that a knowledgeable, engaged teacher is the single most important factor in boosting student academic achievement in the schools.

But we also know that we can’t expect teachers to be parents and social workers and counselors and teach. And we know that young people coming into the classroom, some of them are not able to read at a fourth grade level, while others are ready for AP courses.

So I think teachers can’t do it alone. We need to surround teachers with supports from parents, from communities, counselors and others who can help students stay on track.

GWEN IFILL: Are there any best practices out there? There are some cities, some urban areas in particular, where this happens the most often, who have actually seen their graduation rates rise in recent years. What are they doing right?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Yes, this is not all depressing news. We have seen increases in high school graduation rates across 29 states.

One example, the state of Tennessee, said, we need 269,000 college degree holders by 2025. We have a skills gap in the state of Tennessee. So, they focused like a laser on the five urban school districts that were disproportionately dropping out the most students.

They provided supports through exemplar educators and administrators. They doubled the capacity of community-based supports in a lot of these schools. And they were really effective in using data to target the 10 to 15 percent of young people who have sort of the gathering storm of trouble, who need the most support.

GWEN IFILL: Does it seem to you like we’re moving past the blame and moving towards solutions?

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Very much so.

There’s this Civic Marshall Plan that has a goal of 90 percent high school graduation rates by the class of 2020, taking that seriously, looking at the students who are in fourth grade today, and then being driven by good research, but an approach that not only involves schools, but communities, government, business leaders, and helping to tackle it.

GWEN IFILL: John Bridgeland, the CEO of Civic Enterprises, we will be talking about this a lot for the next 18 months.

Thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: Nice to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tomorrow night, we look at parents and educators facing tough decisions about school choice in Anderson, Ind.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.