Monday, April 17, 2006

"Stand Up" Ought to Sit Down

From Po:

When we first heard about the Gates Foundation report on high school dropouts, we were encouraged. A serious organization with unlimited finances might make a real difference in permanently improving the lives of kids destined for the underclass. When we heard Oprah was going to devote two shows to the topic, I really got my hopes up. If anyone can make a difference if she chooses to, it's Oprah. Oprah and Bill Gates on the same stage? Those are the two most powerful people in this country. When Time magazine added its weight with a cover story, we anticipated the rest of the media would jump on the bandwagon.

So what would these powerhouses recommend as a solution? We eagerly awaited ...

... and we were painfully underwhelmed.

The Gates Foundation took a year to poll dropouts and come up with a solution, and that solution is:

"a website"

A website? Yup, a website. They have set up a website,, where parents can buy medallions. Not innocuous Lance Armstrong bracelets, but leather-strapped metal quarters with a cut-out V. Hip jewelry, basically. While buying the medallion, parents can learn how to pressure their governments to "stand up" and demand better schools.

Note that Gates didn't offer more money for drop-out programs. Conversely, they're asking for your money - for medallions - to fund activities.

In fact, offers you no hope at all to help your child right now. It's theoretically possible that parents will sign up by the millions and mobilize collectively and one day, ten years from now, Bill Gates will cut the ribbon on some new schools that have been built. But as for your child who's bored with high school so is barely passing and considering dropping out ... get her a medallion!

This is not even as useful as Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No."

Can you imagine how this kind of solution would go over at Microsoft? "Bill, we can't make Windows Longhorn work yet, but in the meantime, we've set up a website so users can register and demand better software. Oh, and we're selling them coffee cups with the Longhorn logo."

Then we have noticed a few itsy bitsy problems about the website in question. It's very fancy, technologically, and has color-coordinated photographs. But it is available only in English! Didn't the people read their own Gates Foundation report!? Twenty percent of the school population wasn't born in America. The most at-risk category for dropping out is Hispanic youth. Their Spanish-speaking parents are supposed to log on to this English-only website and read about demanding better schools?

Most of the language on the site is in the very style of the boring textbooks that drive students away from school. Here's a sample sentence: "Courses and projects must spark student interest and relate clearly to their lives in today's rapidly changing world." We all agree with the sentiment of that sentence. But it's bland. And the parent of a drop-out is likely not to have much of an education either, so being simple and direct and super-easy to read is essential. Feeding them policy-speak is not helpful.

In fact, if they'd been serious about reaching the parents whose kids need the most help -- not only should the website be translated into a number of languages, and in simple language, but each page should have an audio of all the text, so that parents who can't read will still be able to understand its message.

But these are quibbles in comparison to our biggest gripe.

The most important thing you can do right now to help your children is to be actively involved. Not involved in demanding for better schools, but directly involved in the learning process of your children -- when they are at home as well as at school. We are going to post on this topic in depth tomorrow, but the research shows that there is a significant gap in academic performance between people of different races and ethnicities. Half of that gap is correlated to socioeconomic class - poor people generally do worse. (Meaning, when the social scientists controlled for socioeconomic status, half of the gap went away). But here's the interesting fact they also found: half the gap is also explainable by parenting differences. There are racial and ethnic differences in how parents talk to their children, discipline their children, and read to their children. By the time a child gets to kindergarten, these cultural differences have already set the child up to start out behind.

The battle is not just in the schools. A huge piece of the solution is in changing the culture so that these children start school on equal footing. This is a taboo subject because it involves a critique of class and ethnic parenting styles. If anyone could have surmounted that taboo and made it an issue of public importance, it would be Oprah and Bill Gates.

But most of the show was about the failure of schools. They put all the blame on the schools. They let the parents off the hook. Oprah tackled a big issue here, and I applaud her. But I can't believe she was all that excited about the Gates' website either. I wish she'd steered the show to her kind of "take it home" solution - maybe challenging every parent to read a book to their child that night. Not just read it to them, but ask questions and make sure the child is following along.

I'd love for Oprah to devote a show to teaching parents the fine details of how to be actively involved - how to talk to children with positive regard, and how to ask questions that give hints and encouragement, and how to have more conversations with children. In one hour she could do more for parenting styles (and future dropouts) than a billion of Gates' dollars.

Tomorrow - how parental involvement makes such a difference.

Day After Tomorrow - how good programs to help at-risk kids aren't actually working.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has there been any studies on whether or not there is any connection between early childhood education and high school drop outs?

Perhaps I can give a specific example here. I was thinking about that basketball player who was given a passing grade each year so eventually he got a basketball scholarship to college then surprise! they find out he cannot read.

When I heard that story, I realized how fortunate my deaf classmates and I were in the long term. When I lost my hearing, I had to start school. At that time, if a child was born deaf, then the child started "school" at the age of 9 months. When I started school, like other deaf kids, we all had home visits from our teachers. Our teachers visited our homes.

My parents mentioned that some families may be uncomfortable with home visits because they may feel as if they were being judged.

But I look at the classmates of mine and we all had home visits. None of us dropped out of high school.

Some of the classmates ended up living away at boarding school also known as the deaf school.

So, do kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds get home visits from their teachers or not?

Also, has there been any long term studies about if the Head Start programs helped children get a good start and they do not drop out? Or do they still drop out anyway?

Wonder if Oprah will ever do a show about Head Start programs?

9:34 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

The short answers are yes, there have been a myriad of studies on the academic achievement of kids in light of early children education, the effectiveness of prevention programs (of all sorts), etc. And yes, there's a connection between kids who had trouble when they were young and those who drop out. (We're going to go into some of it this week.)

I know a little bit about the history of deaf schools -- but the issues there are quite different -- because then you're talking about how schools should assess and accommodate children with special needs.

As to home visits, generally, I think that would depend on local school district requirements.

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Mario said...

Contrary to your assessment, I do not believe the total solution being offered by the Gates Foundation is "a website". I think The Gates Foundation, Oprah, Time Inc., and all of the partners involved with the Stand Up movement have done something rather important - and that is to raise awareness among the masses through media. It is up to the American public to realize a more comprehensive solution to this country's high school dropout epidemic.

We all seem to know with absolute certainty that awareness of this issue – equal and quality education for all – is extremely vital to young people’s success. Yet, this country is falling drastically behind the curve. The world is becoming an increasingly competitive marketplace. If the youth do not know their history and/or are not educated properly to compete with their peers around the world, America will suffer lasting economic and social consequences. Further, the country will suffer from a low collective-esteem.

As a recent college graduate born of the MTV-generation, I can appreciate the power and influence that media has in mobilizing people (particularly young people) towards social activism. Media is perhaps the most powerful tool to influence social, political and cultural change (whether positive or negative). In this case, the Gates, Oprah and others are using media to foster positive social change. In my opinion, these efforts should receive praise, not criticism. Let us work to do more – young, old, student, teacher – together. Stand up!

3:24 PM  
Blogger Dr Jeannette Kavanagh said...

More than a year later, a comment. I like Mario's notion that Oprah and the Gates' are using the media to 'raise awareness among the masses'. If you don't know enough about a problem, personal or social, you'll be hard pressed to solve it.

By now, I assume that people in the United States of America and even here in Australia have been apprised of the problem - by the media or via their direct family experience of it.

And that problem is? Far too many people in the USA are leaving school before they even have a High School education. To that problem one must add the other dimension as discussed in your article and mentioned by Bill and Oprah: namely the active apartheid evident in schooling outcomes in the USA. There is an ethnic and racial divide in terms of who stays at school, who succeeds at school, and as a corollary of that, who receives top quality college education. That divide is probably greater today than the time prior to the so-called Civil Rights movements which allegedly brought about racial equality.

Oprah almost got the depth and breadth of the racial inequity when she sighed about her own education and how lucky she was to have gone to an integrated school. Yes, she was. But how about 2007 and the facts stated by Bill G: African Americans who make it to Year 12, read at the same level as their Caucasian counterparts at Year 7. Let alone the fact that Hispanic and African Americans are disproportionately represented in the early drop out figures.

So, that's the problem. It has enormous implications for the skill set of future America. Have either the Gates Foundation, Oprah, Time Magazine or any part of the media followed through with a solution? And yes, parenting may very well be the pivot on which the future of America swings. I doubt it will be publicly funded schools who do the Superman trick, swooping in to rescue a generation of semi-literate, disengaged young people.

3:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I say THANK GOD for Po's comments.. they were mine as I watched the program.

I am a former teacher and currently a Substitute and believe me if someone is looking for the child left behind I have found THEM.

It is not about how schools "teach". Bill and Oprah came out fine with the way they were "taught". Its not about the buildings and facilities, although frankly that can be improved, its about the COMMUNITY.

Until we understand what is really going on in society at large where education is viewed as a negative, an "interference" in one's lives we cannot possibly make improvements to the system.

The system is a mess but so is our society. We have to address the real truth that as wages, types of work and the opportunities available (including education) become more and more disparate between the rich and poor we will never be able to make kids and their families see the need for education. It becomes an exercise in futility to hold that carrot to a child knowing full well that the closest an inner city kid is going to get to Microsoft is as a janitor.

I don't see Bill offering work-study programs, sending Microsofties into schools on sabbaticals to mentor and teach kids or well ever setting foot in a Seattle Public School to see what they are really like.

And if Oprah feels compelled to build a school in Africa I find that ironic that right down the street is a school more dilapidated than a "third world" one, yet no Oprha-ization there.

There is no there there.. I think once again the rich tisk tisk but I have no doubt from their lofty perch its easy to cast stones.. but when it comes to getting into the trenches and really doing the nasty work they have no desire.

We have children with family values, lifestyles and circumstances that are massive economical and cultural issues that have to be addressed in order to find ways to educate these children. And that means dealing with issues regarding race and ethnicity.

And it is also ironic to have a website in English to encourage participation.. uh some of those most affected cannot only not read the information but the presumption they have access to a home computer and internet is even more ironic.

This STAND UP campaign only further proves my point that Bill Gates, philanthropist, is a moniker unsuited.

3:54 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home