According to the March 3, 2006 article “Dropout rates high, but fixes under way,” high school students are dropping out primarily because….. can you guess? They are bored.

Most students don’t drop out because they can’t do the work. Nearly 90 percent had passing grades when they left school, according to the survey of dropouts by Civic Enterprises. Their major reason for opting out? The classes were too boring.

Is NCLB helping this situation? I really doubt it. What we need are passionate, committed educators teaching students and challenging them to grow beyond their own expectations– not mandates for testing or a national curriculum. High quality teachers make the difference. Relationships make the difference.

Dr. [Daniel] Losen wants to see a major emphasis on getting better teachers into schools, and also cites research that a personalization of high school – helping kids feel engaged and part of a community – can be a big factor in keeping them in school.

I am with Dr. Losen on this– we have GOT to relinquish our traditional focus on learning in a factory model and embrace a more authentically learner-centered approach. The naysayers will say, “that’s too expensive.” “That’s hard.”

And they are probably correct. It IS expensive to pay for high quality teachers, especially to permit them to have small class sizes. It IS much more challenging and difficult to engage in authentic, messy assessment, rather than shoving endless worksheets and bubblesheet scantrons in front of students. But authentic learning and ongoing assessments STUDENTS CANNOT FAKE (because they require real thinking and learning) is precisely the type of educational work in which we need to be engaged.

Vouchers and high stakes accountability are not the answer to this puzzle, unfortunately, but in this same article misled educational scholars are advocating precisely that solution:

Professor [Jay] Greene believes the only way to significantly lower the dropout rate is to raise academic skills – whether through accountability or school-choice programs.

No, Professor Greene, we don’t need more testing or vouchers. We do need to empower teachers to teach from their heart, with passion, and engage students so they feel challenged with the complex problems and issues of the day. We need more teachers like Barbara Dorff teaching our students, who “grab students by their hearts” when they engage them through the arts in their content area studies.

Rather than thinking about stricter accountability measures for mandatory schooling, why don’t we consider the radical proposal offered by Dr. David Jonassen when I heard him speak about problem solving in educational contexts a couple of weeks ago? Let’s make K-12 schooling optional. Would that result in social chaos? I doubt it. I also doubt that government leaders would be willing to take so radical an approach. But I think it would certainly create a positive pressure in schools to actually engage and motivate students with worthwhile educational pursuits, rather than ideologically flogging them with worksheets, never ending test prep, and didactic/teacher/content-centered instruction which bores rather than stimulates, and promotes higher dropout rates rather than reducing them.

The secret to addressing the drop out rate won’t be found in technology, a new curriculum guide, school vouchers, or even charter schools. The educational reform proposal de jure won’t do it. What we need are high quality, passionate teachers loving kids and empowered to engage them in a magical journey of learning and working hard together. That’s it. Technology can be employed effectively toward that end, but such use is far too rare today, I fear.

Kids want to be engaged in school. They want to be involved in work that matters. They want to be taught by teachers who love them, and recognize them for the unique human beings they are. They want to be challenged and stretched. And they want to have fun. It’s up to us, the educators in the field, to make this dream a reality every day in the small part of the world where we live and work. We can’t hold back and wait for some political reform or national change movement. The time is now, the students are here.

We need to sing their song.

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4 Responses to Kids want engaged learning

  1. Jeff Allen says:


    Saying, “I couldn’t agree with you more” doesn’t adequately describe how I feel. You are pinpointing the real issue… “What we need are high quality, passionate teachers loving kids and empowered to engage them in a magical journey of learning and working hard together.” I believe that teachers with such capabilities exist, and in fact could describe the majority of educators. However, they are bound within a system that simply doesn’t allow for students to dig deeply and create relevance and meaning in their learning.

    We know that all of us, students and adults alike, learn best when we are given the freedom and resources to dig into things that are interesting to us. One utopian way of describing a high school would be a place where students were given the opportunity to study what interests them and the adults “get out of their way” (guide and facilitate their learning, but not driven by curriculum and testing).

    Dennis Littky’s The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business is a great story of exactly what we are talking about. At The Met Center, in Rhode Island, students learn in the context of their community in ways that are real and relevant. There are no “teachers” at the Met, staff are known as “advisors”, and they focus on developing relationships with students and assessing their learning (not via scantrons).

    Wesley, you are right on the mark…please keep singing this song!

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Jeff, I see you are up late this evening / morning as well! You can count on me singing this song as often as I can, and I think I’ll be joining a large chorus. Our voices need to be heard.

    Thanks for the link to Littky’s book, I’ve added it to my Amazon wish list!

    I do think there is a balance to strike between introducing students to ideas and areas of study they might not have an existing interest in, and letting them pursue issues they are curious and passionate about. I am informed by both John Dewey’s writings on this, as well as E.D. Hirsh’s “Cultural Literacy.” I would not describe myself as a disciple of Hirsh, but I think he does raise some important points about certain issues (like the Holocaust) being topics everyone needs to have a working knowledge about. If we don’t understand the Holocaust, it is harder to debate issues relating to Darfur and ongoing genocide in the Sudan.

    That being said, I think we agree that teachers need to be empowered to teach on topics they feel passionately about. A passionate teacher can ignite an interest and even love of learning in the heart and mind of a student that a curriculum guide never could. I know I want my kids attending schools where teachers like that are supported and empowered. Right now I don’t think we have much public policy dialog that acknowledges this.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Here’s my question…

    If so many of us believe that creating more personalized (building relationships), engaging learning environments (that are rigorous — meaing “deeper” not just “harder” and connected to the real-world)… why can’t we make this happen…

    I work everyday on my campus trying to implement systemic changes that will result in a school that is more conducive to real learning — not just passing a test. In my opinion, it’s not the teachers who are the problem. Our obstacles to real “re-invention” (as Tony Wagner describes it) are the administrators who are so scared about losing their jobs over test scores that they are afraid to do what is best for the students.

    Instead these administrators put pressure on the teachers to just teach the tested curriculum — we don’t need to worry about doing any kind of problem-based learning right now… Let’s just get the kids to pass the test. We can let the students who have passed the test “play around” with projects and portfolios and all that other “fluff”.

    The results that I see are more and more of our students learning nothing more than just how to pass the test and the implementation of more and more “band-aids” like test remediation classes and trailer classes for students who fail core courses because our administrators won’t let us implement anything that doesn’t result in immediate improvement in test scores.

    The administrators are too focused on the bottom-line and not on long-term systemic changes.

    At a recent district-wide meeting of School Improvement Facilitators, I heard one person comment that all of our schools’ mission statements have now become “just get the kids to pass the test!”

    Until our policy makers stop trying to mandate “testing” as a solution to school improvement we will continue to see limited implementation of engaging and relevant learning experiences for our students.

  4. Wesley Fryer says:

    We all have parts to play in this drama, but I think you are right that the policymaker focus on testing has administrators hopping to a ridiculous beat that is NOT in the best interests of our students.

    I had not heard anyone say this quite like you have regarding mission statements. I think that is true and very sad, in many contexts.

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