Friday, July 18, 2008

A Key Solution for the Dropout Problem 

For 40+ years, we have tinkered with our educational instruction. The results have not shown much improvement. We try one method, it fails, then go on to the next latest and greatest. When students do not learn basics they experience frustration and failure. Eventually they simply quit. Here's what we did in the last elementary school where I taught. It worked.

My last teaching assignment was in a Fairfax County elementary school with 25% off-the-boat foreign students from southeast Asia, eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America; about 33% black, many who managed to get out of DC; and the rest were white. Students crossed the economic spectrum from welfare families to upper middle class. We were one of the bottom five elementary schools when measured socially and economically. What did we do?

First - Understand that students did learn to read in the days when primary teaching methods were phonics and drill, drill, drill. "Drill and kill" is a superficial sloganeering attack on a method proven to be effective. The alternative reading "programs" designed by academics who rarely worked in a classroom teaching reading are mostly bunk. They may work for a few students but not the majority.

Our school worked - Why? We had a terrific reading program that had 7-9 sublevels for each grade level. Each sublevel focused on particular phonic concepts. The content of the stories was geared to the age of the student and written to specifically teach the needed skills. Result? Our school, one of the poorest in Fairfax County VA, outscored 50% of the other elementary schools.

Second - we drilled basic arithmetic facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) until they came easily and quickly.

Third - we had a 6'+ black guy for a principal who backed his teachers, regardless of color. Decent behavior standards, including respect, were known and maintained.

No one can learn concepts or critical thinking without knowing basics (reading codes, math facts, historical facts) and then taught when and where to apply them. Once the foundation of leanring is internalized, the vast majority of students will learn. Teaching feel-good pabulum results in students who are not only incapable of thinking but also unprepared for most kind of work that can lead to a successful life.