Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tackling the dropout problem with constructivist teaching

Perhaps we are dealing with dropout prevention in the wrong manner.

Maybe that's too strong... perhaps I should say, maybe we are missing an important ingredient. The dropout-prevention focus in most high schools in Iowa is two-fold: 1) find students flexible credit recovery options that meet their learning needs and give the a fresh start, and 2) build solid relationships with school personnel that will drive students to stay in school.

But perhaps a third focus should be on the learning model. A great story has emerged about Camden's MetEast High School in New Jersey. Camden, known for its smokestacks, pollution, and low income levels, is not a promising socio-economic location for a student to thrive. But while other schools have struggled (near lowest in the state in scores, near highest in dropout percentage), MetEast has done the exact opposite. In fact, it graduated all of its students this year, even ones who became pregnant or moved to different districts.

One might say that the key is being a charter school, much like the success that KIPP schools have had. But I'm not so sure of that. There are no requirements for admission to this school--students are chosen via lottery. Perhaps it is the fact it is a smaller school (30 to a graduating class).

But in asking the administrators and students, MSNBC found it is the constructivist project-based learning model that the school uses. Similar to the model the New Tech schools use (which have gained the attention of Iowa's Department of Education), MetEast focuses on letting students follow their passions, developing projects around interests, and completing internships. And while that formula has (perhaps not surprisingly) led to no dropouts from the class, it also has led to some of the highest test scores in the state

Now certainly, there is more to this story. There must be great teaching and powerful relationships going on there, despite the article's not focusing on them. It's also a small example... KIPP has had success despite an almost polar-opposite model, and many of its critics have said that over time, the success KIPP has had will diminish.

But for a moment, the take-away from this story is that while we have primarily focused on helping at-risk students catch up after they have fallen behind, perhaps if we changed our educational model, they wouldn't be behind to start with. And more importantly, instead of the focus being on graduating, it can return to learning. Which, is what is truly critical for at-risk students, because their lives do not end upon graduation.

Hat tip to @sethdenney for the link.

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