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Assisted Suicide of a Generation

SeenoevilMarc Aronson says that America’s dropout epidemic for children of color is the "assisted suicide of a generation," but educators can not discuss it candidly.

Five KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay had an attrition rate of 60% between 5th and 8th grade, giving ammunition to KIPP's detractors. Conversely, if teachers would reinvent high school during their spare time, then we could re-engage alienated teens. And so goes the blame game.

So, why not focus on highly mobile and excessively absent students? After all, there must be a rational limit to the scorn we can heap on educators for their inability to help children who are not in school.  It is manifestly impossible for teachers, who already have their hands full, to reach out and rescue many of those children who miss school too much.  New York City has 392 people to monitor 200,000 students who are chronically absent, but the district adopted the predictable response - blame the principals.

When 20% of a city's elementary students are absent for more than a month, is it any suprise when that number grows to 40% in high school?  Given its seven billion dollars of new money, why didn't the New York City schools invest in their most vulnerable students?  I blame ideological conflict and political correctness.  Who wants to address the embarrassing question of how schools can graduate more students than the number of students who actually attend class?

Afterthought.  In my first draft, I closed with a verbal zinger, thus perpetuating the blame game that I've been decrying.  But we lost another student this week to gun violence.  He was the kid who inspired the post, "The Big Sort."  The stakes are too high for educators to continue their ideological battles.  New teachers used to be taught, "You are not the problem.  I am not the problem.  The Problem is the Problem."  If we can't even open our eyes and seek "win win" solutions for chronically absent and mobile students, we really need some soul searching. - John Thompson


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I can't make heads nor tails of this article. Your first link takes me to Aaronson's website. What does that have to do with "assisted suicide of this generation?" This whole article doesn't make any sense. What does KIPP's high attrition rate have to do with blaming schools.? Please rewrite this piece.

I must have under-edited and over-edited. I should have been more explicit that it was Marc Aronson who said that the dropout rate for children of color represented “assisted suicide,” and that his presentation can be found on:

I had intended to link to Aronson’s book Race, but I was so enchanted with his entire web site, I just trusted readers to explore his wisdom. Scroll through his works, and you will see why Aronson is so effective in communicating with teens. Its his ability to honestly address difficult issues that appeals to students.

When a student drops out of KIPP. It is called “attrition.” When a student drops out of a neighborhood high school, he is called a “drop out.” We can quibble or seek solutions.

I have been thinking heavily on this and wanted to respond. First off--I liked the terminology of assisted suicide of a generation to describe the drop-out rate (and I clicked the linked too and then got confused--is assisted suicide Aronson's term?)

Next, the snide aside about KIPP's attrition is something of a detractor for me. The public schools have been pushing certain kids out at least all of my adult life. The fact that KIPP has done something with some of them (or not), is a red herring, to my mind. Overlooking poor attendance in the lower grades, compounded by suspension and expulsion, unchallenged hall-walking, or midday school leaving in the middle and high school grades, followed by truancy and ultimate drop-out are patterns that are known realities. I recall the teachers who would get mad at the community centers who (they said--it wasn't the practice where I worked, or anywhere that I knew of) allowed suspended kids to come in during the day and shoot hoops. We were frustrated because we would challenge kids who weren't in school during they day and they would tell us they weren't allowed to go--they were on suspension. All of this adds up to a systemic communication that it isn't terribly important for some kids to be in school. And despite the John Thompsons of the world, there are kids who are expected to go every day to a building where no one cares if they show up--and a few would prefer that they didn't.

Even NYC's choice to hire attendance monitors as a solution speaks worlds about how we see the problem. The attendance problem is somebody else's problem--not the problem of the school. To believe that even 392 additional staff can corral the missing kids and return them to the school that disengaged from them just as surely as they disengaged is the apex of foolishness. I tried working with such a worker in my own district. We had the advantage of a prior relationship before he worked for the district, and he had worked with my son. This didn't change the fact that he was assigned to "cover" six high schools. Most of the schools that he worked at didn't know his name or what he did. I'm not sure what he did other than contact kids from a list of names--the most severe and chronic kids, in other words the hopeless cases. He was basically one cog in a wheel that ground in the possible direction of taking parents to court if their kids were truant--not that the court had any idea what to do with them, not that their parents had any idea either, and in complete denial that the school system might be playing any part in the loss of its kids.

I taught GED classes for several years--during the first wave of reforming "welfare as we know it." My students were mostly young mothers, required to attend in order to get their checks (this only lasted a few years--after that, going to school was dropped and they were just required to work). Most had left school in 9th grade. Most felt like failures with regard to education. Many had spent time in special classes. None knew what learning disabilities they might have or how to deal with them. A number had been advised by counselors that they should "just get a GED," since they couldn't pass the state test.

The answers are both simple and complex. I truly believe that if schools--even at current staffing levels--embraced a sense of responsibility for graduating more students, they could come up with myriad solutions at every level. 392 monitors might have some level of success with truly chronic cases if there were more school level effort put into early prevention efforts. Efforts put into things like school climate and discipline support can make all kinds of difference if they are enacted collaboratively at the building level (and are doomed if shuffled off to centrally located single issue experts). Efforts to build school community and relationships with parents/families are effective, but receive little thought, especially when parents don't respond to traditional meeting nights.

Maybe some fundamental questions need to be asked, at the school level. Who benefits when kids leave school? Who cares when kids leave school? What role does the school play in kids leaving school? What role might the school play in keeping kids in school?

Wow! I really needed an editor on that post, although I did run it past four other educators who read the words the way I meant them. The four words that I cut from being explicit on Marc Aronson allowed me to reduce the post by one line, (and I mistakenly thought, not sound so academic), but maybe it also distracted from the point that I thought was clear - that both sides are caught up in the blame game.

I was protesting the snide comments of anti-KIPP people who complain of their attrition rate. We should mourn the losses that KIPP could not prevent, as well as the dropouts who don't make it through neighborhood schools. They are all human beings.

To criticize KIPP for not solving all of the problem is tantamount to criticizing regular secondary schools for not reineventing themselves in their spare time so that they will be compelling enough that the absenteeism will disappear.

Margo/mom, at least the teachers knew what students were doing while they were suspended. Just kidding. But surely you can see why all sides are frustrated in the situation you described. So, wouldn't we be better off if more neighborhood mentors were working in the schools, and visa versa, so people would at least have a chance to try to talk things out? But I think you are grasping at straws if you think that 392 adults can make a difference for 200,000 students. Just look at the imbalanced priorities. NYC invests $400,000,000 in "accountability" which is necessary to keep up the blame game, and less than 400 people for the ultimate "win win" approach.

It must be my fault, but I'd hoped that readers would respond to the "see no evil" imagery. If we really want to address this problems we need to create new institutions and stop pretending that neighborhood schools, as they are constituted, have a chance to solve them. Call them alternative schools, call them intervention middle schools, or call them bananas, but we need to create new capacity, if we hope to reduce the numbers of assisted suicides of the generation.


I don't think that 392 is adequate to work with 200,000. But a whole lot happens before kids reach the chronic point. If we were fighting an epidemic of something physical--say childhood diarrhea--since that is something that is actually killing kids in third world countries--we certainly would need to put an effort into rehydrating the kids on the verge of death. But if we didn't also put efforts into ensuring a clean water supply and some basic behaviors (hand-washing, cooking certain foods, nutrition) across the board, the numbers of near death kids needing hydration would just continue to grow and overwhelm the resources.

The 392 is the resource we (or they) have. Using it to rescue the kids who are near death--to follow the assisted suicide analogy--may not be the best, or only, place to put the resource. We have schools that are overwhelmed by gang warfare--at least exacerbated by their inablity to engage to kids in figuring out how to resolve the simplest of conflicts (and I know that you know first-hand exactly how stupid are some ot the things that kids get killed for) with self-respect and dignity. We really need to have more of the simple, every day things attended to--keeping kids engaged while they are in school, committing to seeing that they are all learning, or receive intervention, maintaining schools as welcoming places. There's a whole lot of handwashing that goes into preventing an epidemic. This is the stuff that everyone has to do. Otherwise it doesn't matter how much resource we pour into curing the disease, some kids are going to die.

Thanks for the citations and nice words. I came up with that phrase when I first heard those drop out statistics in a speech given by Bill Gates last November. I am a historian, not a teacher or a policy maker. So, broadly, I think we have these numbers because both the families of those who drop out, and the surrounding society, accept them. I'm reminded of Obama's race speech -- the real bitterness on both sides that is not expressed in public. To me, the statistics are the effect of the attitudes that we harbor -- which I explored in my book on race. The first step, I suspect, is to get general agreement that those numbers are intolerable. Then solutions become a necessity.

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