A dropout’s story

Cornelius loved reading in kindergarten. Math was easy in first grade. “You could say two numbers, and I would subtract ‘em and multiply ‘em and add ‘em in my head, give you three answers in a matter of seconds.”

Why did he drop out of high school? In Butterflies in the Hallway, part of the Education Trust’s Echoes from the Gap series, Brooke Haycock uses interviews and school records to tell Cornelius’ story of failure, disengagement and more failure.

Cornelius had trouble reading “bigger books” in fourth grade. He was too embarrassed to ask for help. By fifth grade, he was getting in trouble with a friend who also was struggling. It “felt better than feeling stupid alone,” he told Haycock 

At a middle school where violence was common, Cornelius began cutting gym class to avoid older boys who he feared would beat him up.

“He never skipped math, the class where he always felt smart,” but he started cutting classes that required reading.

His friends, other “lost boys,” would “just run around the school.” Sometimes he got detention, but nobody tried to find out why he was skipping.

The youngest of nine children, Cornelius was raised by his grandmother. The summer after sixth grade, she died. “I just stopped caring. I felt like there was no one there to enforce rules on me or to make me sit down and do my homework. No one to care.”

He lived with his aunt and two brothers for several years.

Recognizing Cornelius’ artistic talent, a new principal invited the seventh grader to lead the school’s mural painting team at a district competition. Cornelius was thrilled.

But he couldn’t read well enough to do school work. “I started getting further and further behind. And I just lost interest. I felt like I was too far behind.”

He got into fights, which led to suspensions.

In high school, he was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed and placed in special ed classes. Then he was suspended for cutting class.

Some of Cornelius’ teachers tried to help, but he’d given up.

He moved to a group home and a new school for his second try at ninth grade. He failed again. At 17, still in ninth grade, Cornelius dropped out.

If he’d received help with his reading skills in third or fourth grade, could Cornelius have been saved?

Nobody’s average

Schools are designed for the “average” student, but nobody’s average, says Todd Rose in a TEDx talk.

Rose dropped out of high school with a 0.9 grade point average, married his pregnant girlfriend and worked stocking shelves for $4.25 an hour. He went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard; he’s now a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Rose runs Project Variability and is the author of Square Peg: My Story and What It Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries and Out-of-the-Box Thinkers.

Denver remediates collegebound grads

Denver Public Schools is providing free remedial math and English classes over the summer for collegebound graduates. One summer student failed the placement test at the University of Colorado-Pueblo, despite earning a 3.1 grade-point average in high school.

After dropping out of high school in ninth grade, Krista LeBrun earned a GED at 17 — and kept going till she got a PhD.

Graduation rates are up, but is it real?

High school graduation rates are up, but why? Tonight, PBS NewsHour looks at charges schools are increasing numbers artificially by “labeling dropouts as transfers, encouraging home schooling for their most troubled students, or creating alternative systems such as computer-based ‘credit recovery’ courses.”

The show also examines small theme-based schools in New York City and early college programs in Texas that seem to be getting more students to a valid high school diploma.

A high school diploma at 106

Fred Butler quit school in ninth grade, working full time to support his mother and five younger siblings. He married and raised five children, served in the Army in World War II and worked for the city water department in Beverly, Massachusetts.  The 106-year-old man received an honorary high school diploma, but worries that he didn’t actually earn it, reports AP. He really is an old timer.

High school dropout wins Nobel Prize

Alvin Roth, who just won the Nobel Prize for Economics, a high school dropout. Finding his Queens high school boring, he quit in his junior year but managed to get into Columbia, earn an engineering degree and go on to earn a doctorate in operations research at Stanford.

His work has been used to match students to their schools of choice and match medical school graduates to residencies.

Of course, dropping out of high school is one of those don’t-try-this-at-home ideas.

Instead of algebra, ‘citizen statistics’

Is Algebra Necessary? asks political scientist Andrew Hacker in the New York Times.

A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.

My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus.

Inability to do math — specifically algebra — is the major academic reason so many students fail to complete high school, Hacker writes. He proposes “citizen statistics” as an alternative.

. . . it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.

It could, for example, teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed, what is included and how each item in the index is weighted — and include discussion about which items should be included and what weights they should be given.

This need not involve dumbing down. Researching the reliability of numbers can be as demanding as geometry. More and more colleges are requiring courses in “quantitative reasoning.” In fact, we should be starting that in kindergarten.

I think it is dumbing down math — so far down that it will close the door on many careers. But it’s better to teach some math than stick unprepared, unmotivated students in dumbed-down classes labeled “algebra” and “geometry.”

Frustrated by huge failure rates in remedial math, some community colleges are teaching “quantitative reasoning” rather than algebra to students who don’t have STEM ambitions. That makes sense. But it’s an admission of failure.

Hacker also wants to see classes in the history and philosophy of math, which he thinks would draw more math majors.

Why not mathematics in art and music — even poetry — along with its role in assorted sciences? The aim would be to treat mathematics as a liberal art, making it as accessible and welcoming as sculpture or ballet.

Maybe more people would major in math if it didn’t require learning math, but what would be the point?

A commenter recommends The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure, which sounds like a cool book.

Here’s how Times readers responded to Hacker’s essay.

Yes, algebra is necessary, responds cognitive scientist Dan Willingham.

First, it’s not true that otherwise talented students are dropping out because of algebra. Motivation, self-regulation, social control and a feeling of connectedness and engagement at school are as important as grades, and a low grade in English is as accurate a predictor of failure as a low grade in math.

Second, “the difficulty students have in applying math to everyday problems they encounter is not particular to math. Transfer is hard.”

The problem is that if you try to meet this challenge by teaching the specific skills that people need, you had better be confident that you’re going to cover all those skills. Because if you teach students the significance of the Consumer Price Index they are not going to know how to teach themselves the significance of projected inflation rates on their investment in CDs. Their practical knowledge will be specific to what you teach them, and won’t transfer.

Well-educated people can learn on the job, Willingham writes. “Hacker overlooks the possibility that the mathematics learned in school, even if seldom applied directly, makes students better able to learn new quantitative skills.”

Kids who can’t understand math usually can’t read well either, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. “The very skills involved in reading (including understanding abstract concepts) are also involved in algebra and other complex mathematics.”

D.C. may require college application for all

All Washington D.C. students would have to take the SAT or ACT and apply to college, proposes Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown. Even students who don’t plan to go to college would have to go through the motions, reports the Washington Post.

Brown said it’s imperative that D.C. public schools, with a drop-out rate of 43 percent, standardize how students view post-secondary education. . . . “I’m not saying everyone should go to college, but my goodness, we have to get more young folks prepared to go to college if they want to go to college,” Brown said in an interview. “A lot of them don’t even know how to prepare and apply to college.”

Eleven states now require high school students to take  the SAT or ACT, Brown said.

It’s a win for the college-industrial complex, writes Jonathan Robe.

Come to think of it, perhaps the way Brown could improve the idea is to force all colleges and universities to be open-enrollment and then mandate all persons apply to college and finally require all colleges to graduate any and all students who enroll. Voilà! Completion problem solved! It all reminds me of the joke that the best way to cure unemployment is to make it illegal to be unemployed.

D.C. hasn’t persuaded all students that it’s important to finish high school.

Enroll full time. Get more aid.

“Enroll full time. Get more aid.” That’s the message California community colleges are sending to students.  Full-time students, who are more likely to complete a degree, can use extra aid for living expenses.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  California won’t provide Cal Grants to students enrolling at colleges and universities with high loan default and dropout rates. The new rule will hit for-profit colleges the hardest but applies to all postsecondary institutions.

Locke lessons

Two years after Green Dot Public Schools took over low-performing Locke High School, test scores rose modestly from 13.7% to 14.9% proficient or advanced in English, and from 4% to 6.7% proficient or better in math, reports the LA Times.

Enrollment and attendance rates surged, even as enrollment has declined elsewhere.

Locke began last year with about 250 more students than in its final year under L.A. Unified. And Green Dot asserts that 95% remain enrolled; independent state figures are unavailable.

More Locke students are taking exams in courses required for admission to state four-year colleges. Last year, 785 more students took math tests, 894 more took science tests and 603 more took history tests. Also, Locke’s passing rate is up for the mandatory high school exit exam.

In Lessons from Locke, the Times gives Green Dot credit for admitting all students in the attendance area.

It rightly made reducing the dropout rate its first priority, and some of its lack of progress on test scores might in fact be the result of its success in keeping more troubled students in school.

But Green Dot needs to bring more Locke students to proficiency in the next few years to be considered a success, The Times editorializes.

Green Dot Public Schools billed the standardized test results as a dramatic improvement compared to years under district control. Looking at the percentage increase makes the numbers more impressive.