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Thompson: How Common Core Could Double Dropout Rate

I received an enthusiastic response, especially from educators, regarding last week's TWIE post Common Core Will Double the Dropout Rate, Says Carnegie Corporation.  

The piece also produced some pushback from persons who question the Carnegie Corporation projection and who assert that districts would do whatever is necessary to avoid such an increase in dropouts.

Before addressing research and testing issues, I would like to explain why so many urban educators anticipate that an unconscionable number of low-skilled students will be pushed out of school by the botched implementation of Common Core.

For over a dozen years, too many students have only been taught to parse simple, straightforward sentences and paragraphs, and to answer primitive right-wrong questions. These students need to unlearn these deplorable habits that were worsened by education malpractice encouraged by bubble-in accountability.

The transition from these simple, but counterproductive, worksheet-driven behaviors to meaningful learning is necessary. But, it won't be quick, cheap or easy. The rate by which low-skilled students unlearn the legacy of rote instruction, and master authentic learning, will first be determined by the time it takes for students to rebound from inevitable setbacks. The pace by which teachers help students master new learning skills will be determined by their success in rebuilding the confidence of students after they face defeats.   

As has long been explained by the Johns Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center, the job of counseling and remotivating students to meet much higher standards is far beyond the capacity of teachers in high-poverty schools. The supports students need require a "second shift" or teams of educators.

Regarding the Carnegie research, it provided an impressive balance of quantitative and qualitative evidence. It drew upon the quantitative methods of the McKinsey Group, as well as the the analysis of Everyone Graduates Center. Their methodology drew heavily on work by Robert Balfanz and his team on the importance of promoting power. Students already at risk of failure are in greater danger of being retained, and repeated failure does no good to anyone.

McKinsey asked what would happen if Common Core was taught solely by teachers in the top quartile of effectiveness and who increased annual student performance by 1.25 years. Even under those impossibly ideal circumstances, only 14% of students who enter high school sub-proficient in math would score proficient after four years. This best case scenario would mean that only 43% seniors would become proficient.

The bookend of this study was Robert Balfanz's research on the implementation of "Algebra for All" in 13 large urban districts. Carnegie drew upon Balfanz et. al in finding that "'Current instructional interventions' like those used in the study schools, ... are simply 'not yet powerful enough to create more positive trajectories' for many underprepared students."  Carnegie agreed that, "These findings demonstrate that comprehensive approaches are needed, including new school designs: 'Young people growing up in families where the adults may or may not be just scraping by need comprehensive supports that extend well beyond the classroom.'"

Critics of my post could argue that districts will do whatever is necessary, ranging from creative use of cut scores in Common Core tests to credit recovery tricks to "pass kids on," so that graduation rates won't collapse. But, the prime issue addressed in the Carnegie study is the difficulty of keeping students on track well enough so that they earn credits and graduate. If districts knew how to encourage large numbers of students to not lose heart when retained, wouldn't those systems have already demonstrated that capacity?

By coincidence, a link circulating in the twittersphere is timely. I am aware of only one social science shop that consistently produces brilliant research that is equal to that of the American Graduate Project, and that is the Chicago Consortium for School Research.  The CCSR's John Q. Easton and Elaine Allensworth, in What Matters for Staying on Track and Graduation in Chicago Public Schools (2007), explain why remediation and the type of individualized supports that districts typically implement are inherently incapable of addressing the challenge of teaching to college readiness standards. Systems might nudge more students across the line into passing or by "passing on" failing students, but the lack of real success will still bog them down. Discouraged students then miss more school. 

Systems stick with these failed supports because they are easier to implement than the aligned and coordinated socio-emotional supports that low-skilled students need for deep learning.

The CCSR explains that these individualized remediation shortcuts are rarely effective and "impractical in schools where most students go off-track." If schools seek to meet the challenge of college readiness instruction for all, there is no substitute for tackling chronic absenteeism. And, to address attendance problems, strong, trusting relationships between students and teachers must be nurtured. Teachers and professional support staff must help students "see school and their coursework as relevant and important for their future."

Seven years after the CCSR's warnings and a year before many low-skilled students will face Common Core tests, reformers still seem oblivious to what it really takes to improve high-challenge schools. Given the lack of effort by systems to provide the supports that really matter, the Carnegie projection that the dropout rate will double seems very reasonable. - JY (@drjohnthompson) 






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