Grade 9 Teacher Conference Aims to Stanch High School Dropout Rates

November 08, 2006

Nov. 8, 2006 -- Given its high standard of living, the United States has a disturbingly low high school graduation rate. For students in a number of urban areas and for Latinos and African- Americans, the rate approaches 50 percent, a phenomenon that the authors of a recent Gates Foundation-sponsored report have dubbed the “silent epidemic,” said Robert Lynn Canady, University of Virginia professor emeritus of education, during his keynote address to a U.Va. School of Continuing and Professional Studies conference on what teachers and schools can do to stanch the loss of dropouts.

A majority of policy analysts and lawmakers agree that the overall dropout rate has remained unchecked at approximately 30 percent through the past 20 years, Canady stated, noting that the magnitude of the problem has been consistently distorted or ignored. During consulting in eastern Kentucky, Canady learned that principals there are trained to ask any student who is dropping out whether he or she plans to do home schooling. As long as the student says yes, he or she is marked as not being a dropout, and no effort is made to ever confirm whether home schooling took place. In Texas, he noted, students are not counted as dropouts if they are incarcerated.
The title of the Nov. 1-2 teacher conference, “Grade Nine: The Make It or Break It Year,” reflects the single greatest indicator for a student dropping out of high school — ninth grade retention. Those students who do not pass the ninth grade on their first attempt have an almost-100 percent chance of dropping out, Canady said. For students whose work is below grade level in the middle and secondary school years, the demand for content mastery can become a wall too high to scale without significant help, he added. Ninth grade is where students often hit that wall.

The reasons dropouts give for leaving school vary, but inadequate academic preparation and lack of interest are common variables that schools can influence. To address these issues, Canady said, schools must provide needed resources, the most important of which is time to learn and support from caring adults during the school day. Students who are not successful in school need time in tutorials and in alternative curricula that engage their interest while strengthening basic skills. Learning time at school is controlled by the design of the school schedule. Educators should “think of a schedule as a resource – not just bells ringing and people moving. A schedule can be designed to help us use time as one of the major ways to increase student support,” Canady said.

Standards-based teaching and testing has focused schools’ attention on teaching practices designed to ensure mastery of required content by all students. Teaching to the test, Canady said, can raise expectations for success without providing the needed means to succeed. “We cannot keep raising the bar of expectations for students and not keep raising the bar of support without getting even more student failure; the challenge is finding ways of providing greater student support.”

Conference speaker Dan Mulligan, a former high school math teacher and supervisor in Chesapeake, Va., and winner of numerous national and statewide teaching awards, argued that teachers need to explicitly teach higher order thinking skills, such as compare and contrast, and prediction. All teachers assume that those are general educational goals, he noted, but no grades explicitly address these skills in the curriculum. He argues that the at-risk students need the teacher to actually model the process involved in those types of thinking, a technique that is commonly used by teachers of kindergarten, first and second grades, but is less often used by secondary school teachers. Mulligan suggested that middle and high school teachers could benefit from observing their elementary school peers: “Some of the best instruction happens in K, 1 [and] 2. It’s student-centered, the dialogue is out in the classroom. It’s everything [the high school students] need.”

To help prevent the social and economic fallout from failure to complete basic academic demands for successful employment, the U.Va. School of Continuing and Professional Studies has offered this conference seven times since 2002, to a combined audience of more than 1,200 educators from 13 states. Last week’s conference drew about 100 educators from across Virginia and beyond, including North Carolina, Tennessee, New York, South Carolina and West Virginia.