Concerned about the Dropout Crisis?
3 Actions to Engage Students, Reduce Dropout, & Promote Excellence
by Dr. Louie F. Rodriguez
The Problem & the Hope
The fact that 50% of low-income and primarily African American and Latina/o students fail to graduate from high school after four years is unacceptable. The reasons why students disengage and drop out are complex and are likely a blend of the effects of poverty, misguided policy, inequitable opportunities to learn, school quality, and institutional culture.
The good news is that we know what works. There is no shortage of knowledge about what it takes to promote student engagement, reduce dropout, and increase graduation and college going rates. It is time to produce opportunity-rich schools that equitably serve all students, particularly low-income students, students of color, English Learners, and immigrant students.
My research over the last 12 years and most recently with The PRAXIS Project in Southern California suggest there are at least three very concrete practical and policy actions that schools and districts can adopt to ensure their schools and their students on are on a pathway towards success. While instructional strategies, standards-based curriculum, and orderly classrooms are essential, we have found that the three actions below have merit. The real question is: Are we bold enough to take on the challenge and create the conditions that transform daily practices in our schools? This shift will require the collaboration between local policymakers, district and school-level leadership, teachers, parents, community stakeholders, and students.
1) Invest in Relationships
The research shows that meaningful student-teacher connections, relationships, and interactions are significantly associated with students’ social, emotional, and academic development, particularly in culturally and linguistically diverse schools and classrooms.
School leadership should initiate monthly dialogues between students, teachers, staff, and community stakeholders about the definition and significance of student-teacher relationships in their particular school. Together these stakeholders should define a good relationship. What are the elements of a good relationship? What does it take to make this happen? Schools should also form a “work group” that creates a “Relationship Scorecard” for their school site. This can be informed by surveys, testimonials, and classroom observations. School/district leadership and school boards should engage in monthly walkthroughs that focus on the relational climate of the school. The relational climate of the school should be a metric that is compared to achievement data. Deliberate and meaningful student-teacher relationships are an issue of equity.
2) Promote Students’ Voices
The research shows that the inclusion of students’ voices is significantly associated with student engagement, achievement, and success, particularly in culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Schools/districts need to create learning environments that actively engage students’ voices. School leadership should create monthly student voice forums that capture the voices and experiences of all students, including students who have historically struggled socially, academically, and behaviorally. What is working/not working in school? What suggestions do you have to improve school? Students typically appreciate these opportunities, especially if the school leadership is serious about action. Schools can develop a “student voice work group” that creates tools to monitor the presence/absence of student voice. Schools should particularly focus on marginalized students (i.e., low achievers, disengaged students, non-engaged students, silent students, etc.) who are typically able to provide keen, critical insight into the strengths and challenges in the school. District leadership and school board members should attend the monthly student voice forums and visit classrooms to assess the presence of “student voice” in teaching and learning. The absence of or response to student voice is an indicator in and of itself of school culture. We need to use these realities as equity metrics to push schools forward.
3) Build a Culture of Excellence
The PRAXIS Project’s research shows that schools typically struggle with an explicit definition and commitment to excellence. While everyone believes in excellence, very few policymakers, district leaders, or school leadership know how to facilitate a process that builds a culture of excellence in every single school. Our teachers need this opportunity and our students, families, and communities deserve to be served by Institutions of Excellence. School leadership should create an “Excellence Committee” comprised of students, teachers, administrators, staff, parents, alumni, and community stakeholders who guide “Excellence Campaigns™” at each school. The Committee will define excellence for the school. The Committee then creates a nomination process, collects nominees, and selects “models of excellence.” The Committee then shares these models publicly through posters, banners, newspapers, social media outlets, district board meetings, local and regional businesses, government agencies, and beyond. These models should be used for curricular and pedagogical tools in the classroom and leaders and policymakers can use these examples of what is possible in a culture of excellence. It is time to stop, recognize, celebrate, and learn from “Models of Excellence” that are present everyday in our schools and realize that excellence is an equity issue for our 21st Century public schools.
In order to respond to the pervasive opportunity gap facing primarily low-income communities of color, we must act in ways that are creative, bold, and deliberate to transform the culture of our schools. We know what works. Let’s work together to make it happen.
Dr. Louie F. Rodriguez is an associate professor & Co-Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at CSU, San Bernardino. He is also the principal investigator of The PRAXIS Project, a school-based research and advocacy initiative aimed at understanding and responding to the national dropout crisis. www.praxisinschools.com