There is no reason to keep open a dropout factory or a failure mill. Not one at all. Every day a child is subjected to abysmal instruction, shoddy curricula, faulty school leadership and cultures of failure, that child loses opportunities for future success and the ability to write their own stories. As researchers such as Sitha Babu, William Sanders and others have shown, even a high-performing student will fall behind if they are taught by three consecutive low-performing teachers. Nor do the dropout factories improve over time. As seen in the case of Indianapolis’ Emmerich Manual High School (one of the schools profiled as part of the 2005 series I wrote detailing how inflated graduation rates hid the nation’s dropout crisis), the schools and their cultures remain as pervasive and abusive to students now as they were decades ago. As the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out earlier this year, just 1 percent of low-performing schools it surveyed were dramatically turned around in five years.
Which is why New York University Professor Pedro Noguera’s claptrap in today’s New York Daily News a stunning example of fantasy over data and common sense. While declaring that “New York cannot wait any longer” to keep black and Latino males on the path towards graduation and success in life, Noguera goes off and argues that this requires keeping the Big Apple’s dropout factories and failure mills open for business. From where Noguera, shutting down dropout factories have done little for black and Latino students; instead what should be done is to keep the schools open and instead, use his favored interventions — including extending the school day, pre-k programs and mentoring operations.
Of course, Noguera fails to admit that New York City has actually done more than just shut down dropout factories, in fact, replacing the failure factories with new schools (traditional and charter) with more-rigorous school cultures. He also ignores some of the other systemic efforts that have been done — including improving teacher quality He also ignores the results, including a five-year promoting power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) for black males that improved from 50 percent for the Class of 2004 to 66 percent for the Class of 2009, according to an analysis by Dropout Nation. This doesn’t mean New York City is doing great by any means; graduation and promoting power rates for the city are still in the pits, far too many black and Latinos males are suffering from educational neglect, and we need to move urgently. But there is progress and the approach taken by the city has worked better than the thumb-sucking that has gone in less reform-minded districts.
The bigger problem is that Noguera’s solution — keep dropout factories open and just apply some sort of his favored interventions — has never worked. It is a romantic Hollywood notion, a stock feature of films such as Lean on Me, that makes defenders of the status quo feel real good inside; But such notions do little for actual children, including young black and Latino men who suffer the academic neglect and malpractice these adults perpetuate and support from kindergarten on. Just 11 percent of California elementary schools forced by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later, according to former Thomas B. Fordham scholar Andy Smarick; a mere nine percent of failing schools in Ohio put into restructuring improved student achievement one year later.
Why? Because turnarounds don’t hit upon the systemic and cultural problems within school districts and within American public education. Initiating mentoring programs will not overcome state laws that keep low-quality teachers in classrooms, nor can they substitute for using student test data in evaluating teacher performance. Adding prekindergarten classes will not help improve curriculum or address the problems of literacy that are one of main underlying causes of academic failure among young males of all races, ethnicities and classes. Adding more guidance counselors will do little to address the overdiagnosis of young men — especially blacks and Latinos — as special ed cases in the early grades.
This isn’t to say that Noguera’s suggestions aren’t worth pursuing. It’s that they must be pursued as part of systemic reforms that includes shutting failure factories and replacing them with cultures of genius — including high-quality charter and private schools. Far too many black and Latino men are forced into academic prisons that serve as gateways to Attica, Folsom and worse. Noguera shouldn’t argue for keeping then open. He should be demanding to shut them down.