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Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha launches this new collection of articles on solving the instructional causes of the nation’s education crisis. The next piece appears on Thursday.

Secretary of Education Duncan declared as one of his top priorities the turning around of our nation’s 5,000 worst schools. high  schools. Many of these schools are what he calls “dropout factories” because they account for a disproportionate share of our nation’s high school dropouts Statistically, the Secretary’s plan seems sound. But strategically, he and the rest of our education nation are missing an obvious point: education is cumulative.

Our nation’s dropout crisis is a K-12 crisis. The foundation of academic failure is laid in kindergarten, upon which many a ramshackle education is built. Kids who learn more early on, learn more later on. For at-risk kids, the converse is also true. As the old Billie Holiday song says, “Them that gots shall get; them that’s not shall lose.”

But we can help both the “gots” and the “nots” if we attend to the most common instructional challenges our kids face as they ascend the grade levels kindergarten to high school graduation.

We’re All in This Together

We can’t solve the high school dropout problem by focusing solely on high schools; we have to work on it all along the way. The best way to do that is to improve instruction because instruction is the single most important in-school factor in student achievement.

Tackling the dropout challenge, then, depends on tackling the most significant instructional challenges in our schools at all grade levels—the challenges that wipe kids off the map of high school success years before the band starts playing Pomp and Circumstance.

For reasons that are largely historical, American educators do a particularly poor job working with children in several key areas. Some are grade-level specific, others affect kids at every grade level from pre-K to senior year but tend to show up more dramatically when kids leave elementary school. Ironically, well-documented solutions exist but they are rarely implemented.

In this collection of articles on Dropout Nation, I will cover the most critical instructional challenges we face as we send students on their long walk up from kindergarten and down the aisle to graduation — then offer practical solutions for overcoming them.

Doctor’s Orders

Would that we could put our educational system on bed rest until it birthed itself a new incarnation. Or that taking a magic pill could make it all better. At the same time, a medical metaphor is an easy way to understand our afflictions and to improve our educational health.

While the number of challenges we face in education seems infinite, we might come close to curing our system of its ills if we applied the right prescription to the following common maladies:

The Early Literacy Problem. We fail to ensure that all kids reach a basic level of literacy by third grade. We begin by ignoring the Alphabetic Principle and teaching phonics backwards from letters to sounds instead from sounds to letter patterns. Then, we fail to help kids become fluent and expressive readers by limiting their independent reading and by not matching them carefully with texts at the right reading level.

The Secondary Literacy Problem. With a diet of largely narrative and fiction-based reading and writing tasks, kids are poorly prepared for the non-fiction reading and writing work that dominates the secondary grades.

The Early Math Problem. We fail to help kids master basic whole number math for rapid, accurate mental calculation. This impacts almost all the math they attempt later on.

The Written Expression Problem. Kids don’t write enough. The don’t write enough different things. And too many teachers rely on formulaic approache which present writing not as thinking through meaningful language but as simplistic “fill in the blank” exercises.

The Content Acquisition. We don’t prepare kids with adequate background knowledge. We don’t teach kids how to make sense of unfamiliar information. We don’t teach them how to study. And we don’t teach them how to memorize the flood of content-area knowledge required of them in subjects like social studies, math, and science in the secondary grades.

The Motivation Problem. As kids reach the teen and tween years, their enjoyment of school drops off. They traditional ways we attempt to motivate them—primarily through external rewards and punishments—can have many negative effects.

The Grading Problem. The traditional point-percentage grading approach is time consuming for teachers and of little constructive value to kids as feedback. Even newer standards-based grading approaches suffer from both of these problems.

The Classroom Management Problem. Few teachers have strong procedural systems in place for effective management. As a result, they lose instructional time getting kids to do what needs to be done and often harm the rapport they have with students as a result.

The Instructional Inefficiency Problem. The instructional methods used by most teachers do not represent the most efficient ways of teaching things. Few practices are highly optimized. And fewer still are shared across large groups of teachers up and down the grade levels to create what might be called instructional economies of scale.

There are other instructional problems to be sure. But these are the most serious and the most pervasive. Attending to all of them all at once is impractical. But making progress in even one or two, especially in the elementary grades, could have a significant impact on student success down the line and eventually on the high school graduation rate.

As we look across these problems, and consider the fates of the million or so kids who drop out of high school each year, we find common themes:

The dropout crisis could be greatly alleviated by focusing on high quality math and reading instruction in the primary grades. More rigorous elementary curriculum better aligned with the challenges kids face in middle and high school could improve what is for many kids a very challenging transition. More efficient approaches to instruction could help kids make more progress in less time. Better classroom room management could improve teacher-student rapport and recover lost instruction time. Student motivation could be improved with different evaluation systems and an emphasis, especially in the early years, on the development of self-motivation.

But it doesn’t stop there. Kids who enter middle school with weak Language Arts skills encounter a double problem: their Language Arts time is cut in half and their reading and writing in content-area subjects increases dramatically. We take our patterns of success and failure with us. Upper elementary kids tend to carry their grades to middles. Middle school kids tend to carry their grades to their high schools.

Making Solutions Real

Perhaps the hardest thing to understand is that all of these problems have been solved—yet the solutions are rarely applied. This isn’t to say that the most common solutions will work for every teacher and every student, but what we already know about teaching and learning, could dramatically reduce the high school dropout rate.

Because so much is known today about good teaching and good schools, it’s tempting to think about education reform as an information problem: if more people just knew the right thing to do, they’d do it. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

Most educational change initiatives fail not for want to knowledge but for want of execution. Implementation, at the district, school, and classroom levels thwarts even the most well-informed and well-intentioned attempts at progress.

This brings us to a critical question: Given our knowledge regarding the wealth of effective practices available to teachers, and our realization that the majority of teachers do not use these practices, how do we move large groups of people toward positive change?

The secret, if there is one, lies in treating implementation as a “co-problem” in the solving of any other problem. For example, instead of just designing a strategy to improve elementary literacy, we design a complementary implementation strategy that supports improved elementary literacy instruction as well and that makes sure new practices are successfully applied school-wide.

By fully acknowledging the problem of implementation, and treating it appropriately as the most challenging problem of all, we can make sure that instructional change has the support it needs to succeed in the classrooms of individual teachers, in whole schools, and across entire districts. And we can keep more kids out of poverty and prison and on the track to success.

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