Bellarmine University hosted a High School Dropout Solutions Summit yesterday.
Organizers originally expected about 100 participants, but in the end nearly 450 showed up – clear testimony that tons of people in this state get it – high school dropouts are a major problem – and one that KERA most definitely has not solved.
The event’s logo was a stylistic artwork proclaiming “1 in 4 is too many!” That says it about right – at least in so far as we can get any sort of handle on the true dimensions of the high school dropout problem in Kentucky.
The very well-done morning keynote presentations accurately pointed out many things that lead to the conclusion that the high school graduation rate problem is indeed a crisis for this state and country. Speakers noted the proliferation of confusing graduation rate calculations over the past few years that just create a smokescreen around the truth, showing that you can find “official” graduation rates for Jefferson County schools running from only 63 percent up to 75 percent. Keynote presenters pointed a well-aimed finger at the US Department of Education’s inexcusable failure to fix this problem when No Child Left Behind came along. There were no smiles in the room when the main speaker pointed out that the US graduation rate now ranks only 15th in the world.
Overall, I was impressed with the keynote presentations. Thus, I looked forward to the afternoon breakout session I had selected to attend where the Web announcement of the conference promised, “participants in this track will identify policy issues that hinder students from graduating…and make recommendations for policy and legislative changes that will work toward getting young people to graduate and become prepared for careers and/or postsecondary education.” Sadly, that wasn’t what happened at all.
Instead we were run through a fairly typical “Delphi Technique” effort to get participants to legitimize and rank order a set of 26 policy ideas that had already been worked up in advance by “others.” There was a totally inadequate time to discuss these suggestions – some very good, some loaded with unintended consequences, and some that had only a most tenuous relationship to dropout rates, at best.
Worse, there was little time for the very well qualified participants (which included MANY college professors and public school educators) to add additional items, and there was no time for the group as a whole to discuss these newly added items and ask any questions about them.
Thus, the vote on the final list was inadequately informed, rushed and ultimately unreliable. It is a shame that the collection of so much talent and knowledge was so poorly utilized as a consequence of selecting the Delphi process to manage the working groups – a lesson the conference organizers need to carry forward if summits are attempted in other cities.
By the way, the dubious character of the Delphi rankings was indirectly emphasized by Dr. Shelly Berman’s surprise at the end of the conference that some other very important items like a renewed commitment to academic rigor were not on any working group’s final list. Ultimately, if kids are not learning material, they become prime candidates to drop out later, so our currently high dropout rates obviously signal a need to reexamine our academic requirements for all grades. Bravo to Dr. Berman, who is the superintendent of the Jefferson County School District, for spotting this obvious problem in the results of the conference. I guess you were not one of the chosen “others” who put my working groups’ pre-ordained list of 26 items together, either.
I hope Dr. Berman and others take the rank ordering of the recommendations from my working group for what it is – an inadequately deliberated, rushed product that can’t be considered trustworthy. I suggest looking at the 26 items without paying any attention to the bogus rankings, but be aware some are minefields (like bad ideas to use GEDs to inflate graduation rates for high schools), while others do appear to have value. If you don’t trust your own judgment, set up your own committee to advise you, but give them adequate time to do research and deliberate before taking any votes. Delphi meetings won’t get you what you need.
I must add that the day was not lost, however. After my working group shut down, the room quickly emptied except for me and a college intern. She was left behind to clean up the mess of left over office supplies. I started to talk to her, and she wistfully mentioned that no-one listens to her, but she has some ideas about what is really behind the Jefferson County dropout problem. I told her I was listening, and she explained she came from the West side of Louisville and grew up with lots of kids who later dropped out. She saw a common thread in their failures – drug abuse, plain and simple.
This is something that adults talking to kids who have dropped out are not likely to find out. After all, do you think a kid who is probably still abusing drugs is likely to admit that to some strange adult? But that dropout might tell one of his friends, like my young intern. Maybe Dr. Berman needs to listen to her – I can confirm she presents herself very well indeed. You just have to take time to listen.
So, in the end, I came away from the conference with several things of value. Some of the 26 ideas are worthwhile, and I am going to see if there is some way to expand on the young intern’s observations. After all, while the drug problem was one of the 26 policy items on the “others” list, it didn’t make it into the top five in the Delphi voting process. Maybe, if more had listened to this young intern, it might have.