Most news items, especially local items such as fires, homicides, and the inevitable scandals involving our business, political, and religious leaders, are not really new, or news, but further re-occurrences of myriad and alike past events. As one grows older one realizes this about the news, and in fact, those of us who still read the print publications, prefer the opinion pages where at least someone is trying, although probably in vain, to say something for the first time.
It’s probably no less true that for most of us each new day is not new but a repeat of the day before. This is easily seen when someone asks us to describe a day in our lives. One day we can do, but to describe a second day, that is not just a repeat of the first, is more difficult.
There is a character in the movie Groundhog Day, Meteorologist Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, who alone in the movie realizes that each day is a repeat of the day before. He’s caught but unlike the other characters he knows it, and in order to eventually free himself from the endless, lifeless repetition of his acts, he has to become a different and better person.
Now it seems to me more and more that those who write about the schools are repeating, evidently unknowingly, things that have been said about the schools, probably since their founding in the 19th century, but certainly since the time of Sputnik when the schools suddenly became, wrongly of course, our best hope for our outperforming the Russians (and later the Chinese) in space and elsewhere.
Gerald Bracey made all this clear (for the first time?) in a Commentary article in Ed Week of February, 2005:
Media stories about public schools show the reporters as non-Bill Murray characters in “Groundhog Day.” In the 1993 movie, the same Groundhog Day repeats itself over and over again, but only Murray’s character sees the repetition. About schools, the media report the present with no apparent historical awareness that it’s the same story once again. As a consequence, Americans keep waking up to headlines declaring that, apparently for the first time ever, the public school sky is falling. The public doesn’t seem to notice the recurrences, either.
It seems, however, that the reporters did not read or hear what Bracey was saying. For just today I read two stories by writers for the Associated Press on the dropout problem, two stories that are almost word for word repeats of countless stories I have read during the past 30 years or more.
It’s not that the writers are wrong in what they are saying. It’s that what they are saying is not news but merely a repetition of the old. Also, and more important, what they are describing, the so called dropout problem, may not be the problem at all, but only a symptom of something else, the existence of which these reporters haven't yet registered.
Although at first he didn't know what it could mean Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day did see right away that each new day was exactly the same as the day before. Eventually he was able to move on. Whereas these and many other education writers don’t seem realize that what they are saying, in this instance about the school dropout problem, has been said many, many times before.
Yesterday the two AP writers, Nancy Zuckerbrod and Stephanie Reitz “woke us up” with these headlines respectively, “1 in 10 Schools are “Dropout Factories,” and “Mentoring, Alternative High Schools on Rise to Reduce Dropouts.” If you had never encountered the “dropout problem” you might be impressed by the use of the term “factory” in regard to dropouts, and by the “folk” wisdom of the use of mentoring and alternative high schools as a cure for the same.
The factory school analogy goes back at least to 1900. The first alternative schools, set up to provide a viable alternative education for those not being served well by the mainstream, probably go back just as far. I take from my own files this passage: “In 1987, the Boston Public Schools and the Mayor's Office signed an agreement to fund a network of community-based, alternative education programs to provide options for students who were at risk of dropping out of high school.”
Mentoring on the rise? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Mentoring is the very first thing that people do for others who need help in making life decisions. The Big Brothers Big Sisters programs are mentoring programs, in many instances with the expressed purpose of keeping at risk kids in school. These programs were founded over 100 years ago. If there is more mentoring it's because there are more kids.
I take the following passages from the two articles mentioned:
“Most [dropout factories] have high proportions of minority students. These schools are tougher to turn around because their students face challenges well beyond the academic ones - the need to work as well as go to school, for example, or a need for social services.”
“The fact that kids are entering high schools with such poor literacy skills raises questions about how much catch-up work high schools can be expected to do and whether more pressure should be placed on middle schools and even elementary schools…”
“Many of the state schools with high dropout rates are in lower-income, urban communities, where a teen's academic success can be influenced by poverty or social problems in their families and neighborhoods.”
“Springfield superintendent Burke and several other educators say getting students to feel involved and interested is critical, and that schools should be centers of encouragement and high expectations rather than frustration and anonymity.”
If we had never read about the dropout problem we would be thoroughly persuaded by the truth of these observations. But we’ve heard these things over and over again, “forever” it seems.
I find myself responding to these and other similar articles in some combination of the following. First with boredom, because I’ve heard it all before. Then with tears of discouragement because so many good kids are still being mostly lost. For we are well aware of all the bad things that do happen to many of them following their dropping out of school. Indeed, that’s the source of our constant attempts to keep them in school, our fear for them, of what will happen otherwise.
Finally, I settle back into my long held conviction that the problem is not of the kids doing, but of our doing and of the schools themselves. In years past this realization led many radical reformers to want to abolish the schools entirely. And this may still be the best solution for many of our students at risk of dropping out.
In any case we ought to abandon the all out attempt to keep these kids in school, and rather assume that our schools, especially our middle and high schools, as presently structured are not the best place for them to be. Isn’t that obvious?
Alternative schools by and large have failed miserably, the exceptions to this being when by alternative we mean an alternative, a vocational program for example, to the college preparatory curriculum that is more and more imposed upon all of our young people. Mentoring programs, although positive and beneficial for other reasons, have also failed to keep kids in school.
Kids, probably half of our young people of high school age, are telling us that they don’t want to be in school as it’s presently constituted. Why don’t we listen to them, instead of devising schemes to somehow keep them in and from dropping out?
In the movie Phil Connors got out of the endless repetition of his days by seeing things differently and going on to live differently and better. We need to see school differently. We should be looking not first at the school and what we need to do to keep all of our kids in school, because we can't. We should be looking first at the kids, and at what they need and what we might do to meet them on their own ground.
Many kids have been telling us, in my own experience for some 50 years now, that math, science, history and language classrooms are not what they most want and need. Why do we go on subjecting all of them to this regime that is probably only for some an appropriate use of their time? Well, in regard to school reform, we’re still living the same day over and over again, and, as a result of our not seeing further, nothing much is being changed for the better.