As I detailed last week, only about half of our freshmen entering Bibb public high schools this month will graduate in four years, if the recent past be prologue. I suggest today what we might do rather immediately to help Bibb’s high-schoolers get a better grip on life than they’re getting now.
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that national and state welfare and birth control policies that encourage irresponsible child-bearing are firmly entrenched, even if misbegotten. Let’s assume that any dysfunctional home situations for the kids who are already with us aren’t going to vanish. Let’s assume that the poverty boom and jobs bust in Bibb isn’t going away tomorrow. Let’s assume that private schools will continue to attract families that can manage to escape the problematic public system. Doesn’t seem like there’s much room for meaningful action by the school board, right? That would be a wrong answer on the local stewardship test.
The key shift I propose is conceptual. Let’s reimagine our role as genuinely honest stewards of these kids. If we candidly acknowledge that about half of them just aren’t going to graduate as things now stand, that admission could be liberating.
Even if half continue to drop out or fail the graduation test, we could still develop a strategy to encourage and empower them, while we have them, to follow more promising paths to citizenship and adulthood. If we adopt a more realistic, tailored program, we might also get more dropout candidates to stay in school, off the streets and maybe even graduate, meanwhile posing fewer obstacles for those already on track.
It’s essential to recognize that it’s counterproductive to attempt to impose the national and state standards reflected in the ambitious Common Core Curriculum on all of Bibb’s rising ninth grade population. You can examine those tough standards at corestandards.org.
It doesn’t take an educational expert to see that a large swath of Bibb’s rising ninth-graders, maybe the majority, have little hope of meeting those standards if the standards are faithfully applied.
So why set up half our kids for predictable failure? That’s cold. We need two curriculums at every high school, one being the Common Core Curriculum for which students would qualify at the start of ninth grade, and a brand new curriculum that’s specially tailored for everyone else in Bibb, who for whatever reason, as starting freshmen, can’t reasonably be expected to attempt the Common Core gauntlet. We might call our new, customized curriculum something like Life and Career Pathways.
The Pathways program would dispense with test-driven academic pretensions, and get down to remedial instruction in basic English and math. Meanwhile, Pathways could insert a whole new emphasis on fundamental concepts, like how it’s profoundly good to be obedient to the overarching system by which we live in civilization.
We could parade a steady stream of cool people before Pathways students. Those genuinely admirable adults could credibly, practically explain how they’ve made it by adhering to dignified disciplines, law, courtesy, participation, timeliness, teamwork, good citizenship, hard work, honor for parents, respect for authority and the like.
We could especially highlight in Pathways that work is wise, in part because work is necessary to avoid lives of poverty. Bibb’s Hutchings Career Center is the sole graduation-rate success story among Bibb’s high schools. Offshoots of it should bloom at every high school.
We could explain Robert Rector’s research that, even if sex and welfare checks might be appealing, having babies young before marriage is an even stronger predictor of lifelong poverty than lack of a high school diploma.
For any kids who are still interfering with others’ educations, we might on the side establish a “Discipline with Dignity” boot camp along the lines of the Brownsville, Texas, prototype that’s explained at texasobserver.org/boot-straps/. Meanwhile, our truancy force should be beefed up, and the parents of chronic truants should be prosecuted vigorously.
There will be push-back to such ideas from deniers, accreditation nannies, folks who recoil at institutionalized hierarchies, test Nazis, coddlers, etc. So be it. Our kids deserve better.
David Oedel teaches at Mercer Law School.