By the time you finish reading this, 4 or 5 more students will decide to drop out of school. They will never attend their high school graduation ceremony, hear Pomp and Circumstance, get recognition for their accomplishments or hear inspirational speeches about what their futures can be. They will slip through the cracks of our educational system and slide toward a dim future.
For longer than I've been alive, the debates about U.S. education have largely been about what others need to do to reform the system or to fix the students. This is a stale, detached approach to an issue that directly affects our entire country's future, and we can no longer afford it. The question we all need to ask is: "What can I do to help a student stay in school and graduate ... today?"
Our national dropout rate suggests that the modern U.S. school experience is not a sticky one for kids. It doesn't captivate them and keep them there. According to the 2010 Gallup Student Poll, a student's enthusiasm for school spikes in elementary school, drops throughout middle school, hits a trough in 10th grade, and flattens in junior and senior years-after the most disengaged students have dropped out of school and the poll. This vacuum of enthusiasm translates into less learning and lower academic achievement across our nation.
Now I hope you are wondering "But what can I do to raise the graduation rate?" We invited 2,835 parents of school-aged children to chime in on the issue by asking, "What is the one thing you could do to raise the graduation rate at your local high school?" The parents offered many answers, including holding students, parents, and teachers accountable and increasing pay for teachers and overall funding for schools.
But the most common response from these respondents-parents who have a daily, personal stake in the game of education-captures the uncertainty and ambivalence associated with nudging students to graduate. Ready for it? Here it is: "I don't know. Nothing."
How can that be? How can 23% of these parents of kids in school say "I don't know" or "nothing?" Perhaps I may have landed on "don't know" myself until my preschooler started asking about when he would be going to kindergarten. I don't think that not knowing how to harness the power of our influence reflects a lack of critical thinking or apathy. Instead, it suggests two things: we don't own this as our problem and we aren't great at developing personal solutions to large, complex problems.
I tested these hypotheses on a few friends by asking them the same hard question: "What is one thing you can do to increase the graduation rate at your local high school?" One friend said, "I will do everything I can do to make sure my kid graduates." I probed deeper, asking "Well, what about other kids?" He responded, "Well everybody graduates from our high school." I corrected and gave stats, and then he said, "Then the school has to be held more accountable." But, what could he do to help? "I don't know," he finally said and slinked away. It's an uncomfortable admission.
We do our best to own education when it comes to our kids succeeding, and we often distance ourselves emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally from the problem when other kids are not succeeding. We demand accountability from the kids, the other parents, the schools, but not from ourselves; we see the problem as beyond our control. This line of thinking is flawed, and it keeps us from being truly open to answering the hard question about what we, as individual members of the community, can do to help students graduate.
When we do finally have the real discussion about helping students, schools, and communities attain their goals, most of us struggle to identify a personal solution to a complex problem. Blanket calls for accountability and reform do little. Active, focused involvement of caring adults in students' lives is a much better investment. Our 2,835 respondents affirmed this. Their next three responses from parents (after "don't know" or "nothing"), in order of popularity, include some slightly more actionable ideas:
Be active and involved in education.
Become a mentor or tutor or teacher.
Promote the value of education.
If each American, with a school-aged child or with no school-aged children, promoted the value of education, actively supported it and/or became student mentors or partners with local teachers, school principals would have a unique problem-managing overabundant resources and good press. I really hope that happens, but we start by each making a simple commitment that we can keep every day. What's mine? My family decided to keep our backyard gate open every evening. We have a kid-friendly backyard, and we serve snacks. When neighborhood kids drop by, we ask them about school and life. We hear about good and bad teachers and savvy fellow students. We hear about chemistry competitions, ballet classes, and picture books about horses. Every week, we learn a little more about the neighborhood kids and the schools and people that educate them. We provide a safe, loving house where kids and their parents feel welcome and wanted.
How can we go from "I don't know. Nothing." to a real, actionable response to "What can I do to raise the graduation rate?" What is the one thing you can do? Just imagine a community in which all students graduate from high school and get a good job. Then consider one thing you could do to make it happen, perhaps using your unique talents and strengths. If you don't have a student already in your life, pick up the phone and call your local principal and ask what you, as a community member, can do to support your local school. And then do it.