Trying to Improve Education? Talk to Some High School Dropouts

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I’ve learned more about education from high school dropouts than I’ve learned from any book, article, or lecture. Despite holding a master’s degree in educational studies, working as a GED instructor for adult minority students in Southeast Washington, DC opened my eyes more than any other experience to the realities that students face as they go through the American educational system.

In many ways, my classroom was a microcosm for larger systemic educational issues. Students were shockingly lacking in basic math and literacy skills. Most of them had been repeatedly told as children that they were lazy or stupid because school was difficult for them and to this day experience anxiety just from walking into a school building. I even had a mother and her 18-year-old son in my class, evidence of the cyclical nature of academic failure and lack of opportunity in families.

Although these students should have been in adult basic education programs, my supervisor informed me that the organization had abandoned that program years ago. Many students received negative pressure in their social circles about going back to school, but being able to say, “I’m getting my GED,” still held a good amount of social prestige. There was no prestige, however, for those students to say that they were learning basic math and literacy skills. Due to sharply falling attendance, the basic education program was dropped in favor of an all-GED program.

While I was frustrated that my students were underprepared, their desire to be in my class signaled some important realities to me: they took pride in their decision to go back to school and were emotionally invested in doing well. Their reasons for returning to school were noble. Most wanted to get good jobs or hold onto the ones they had. Others wanted to be able to help their children or grandchildren with their homework. A couple even told me that they wanted to go onto college.

In all likelihood, many of those students will need to study for years before they pass the GED, and many will never pass it. And yet, they maintain hope. Perhaps merely having a positive educational experience was enough to put them on a good path after years of discouraging encounters with education.

My students knew very little of the scholarly theories we use to explain their situations. I am sure that few of them have ever learned about social capital theory, non-cognitive skills, or the legacy of Brown vs. Board of Education. They made no excuses for why the American educational system did not work for them.

As scholars, we rarely understand high school dropouts as anything other than a set of statistics. I was fortunate enough to learn at an early age that these people are valuable for much more than that. In our discourse about educational reform, these should probably be the first people we talk to about how we can improve our system, not the last. They prove that it is just as important to learn from education’s failures as its successes. And they prove that the people behind those statistics can share with us a wealth of knowledge and perspective.

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