Commentary: Education fixes can’t become about assigning blame
By John Krull
John Krull, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com
INDIANAPOLIS – For an hour, they discussed situations when students and schools falter – when they drop out and fail to graduate.
And they did it without the finger-pointing and acrimony that mark so many of our current discussions about education and its challenges.
The occasion was “No Limits,” the radio show I host for WFYI in Indianapolis. The guests were Warren Township Schools Superintendent Dena Cushenberry, John Bridgeland, president of the Washington public policy firm Civic Enterprises, and Bob Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins researcher and a director of the Everyone Graduates Center.
They had different pieces to bring to the discussion. Cushenberry’s Indianapolis school system just had secured a $28 million Race to the Top grant to promote retention and increase community involvement. Bridgeland and Balfanz had spearheaded research and focused public attention on the dropout crisis.
They all could speak with authority on the pieces of that crisis that are quantifiable. They could cite the fact that there are no jobs in the 21st century for people without high school degrees. They could point to the connection between dropout rates and prison records. They could account for the $100 billion in annual lost productivity that the dropout problem creates.
All of that’s impressive – and depressing – but the parts of the discussion that resonated most powerfully were the smaller, more human parts. The more human costs.
Bridgeland told a story about a girl in Philadelphia. Researchers asking dropouts why they left school found her and asked her to tell her story.
A bright 16-year-old, she told the researchers that she loved the sciences and had had hopes of being an astrophysicist. Family and other issues overwhelmed her and she dropped out.
When she got asked what she was doing now, she dropped her head “and said, ‘I’m working the streets,’” Bridgeland said – meaning that she was working as a prostitute.
Bridgeland said the key for that 16-year-old Philadelphia girl was the same as it is for so many dropouts. She said that, even when school and life had begun to overwhelm her, she probably would have tried to stay in school if just one person had told her that he or she cared and really wanted the girl to keep trying. She would have hung in there and changed her life if just one person had tried to help her.
That person didn’t have to be a teacher. It could have been a counselor, a coach, a community volunteer or any concerned person.
That helping hand didn’t get extended and a bright young girl who dreamed of being an astrophysicist ended up selling herself on the street.
It’s hard to imagine a bleaker trajectory than that one.
Bridgeland, Cushenberry and Balfanz said, though, that there was reason for hope. Graduation rates nationally have begun to climb.
And Bridgeland cited the case of Indiana’s own Shelbyville, which once was the poster child for America’s dropout problem. Shelbyville has recorded double-digit increases in graduation rates.
The town did it by accepting the problem as a community responsibility, not just a school one. The schools put in place systems to detect when students were slipping into danger of dropping out – missing school too often, grades getting worse, disciplinary problems piling up – and the community figured out ways to pair those troubled students with people who cared.
In short, the town noticed when someone was in trouble and people around that person extended a helping hand. That’s what we used to call being a neighbor.
So many of our conversations about education these days degenerate into debates about the ways schools fail or students fail or parents fail or communities fail. The discussion is always about who’s right or – what’s apparently even more important – who’s wrong. In the process, we often forget about doing the small things together that can make a big difference and solve huge problems.
My grandfather was a farm boy who became a career educator, a Southern Indiana school teacher and principal. He used to say:
“It’s amazing how much can get done when you stop worrying about who gets the credit and who gets the blame.”
The older I get the more I respect my grandfather’s wisdom.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.