JP Observer: BPS needs more ‘pathways’ to boost grad rates

May 25, 2012
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Sit at a desk facing the front of the room with young people roughly your age. Listen. Write things down from time to time. Speak every once in while after you get permission. Move around when told, down a hall to another room that looks pretty much the same, maybe briefly outdoors or to lunch. Outside that time, read, mostly for information, and write a little. Get evaluated regularly on what you have absorbed. Do this for nine months a year for 12 years.

Sounds horrible, doesn’t it: such limited and repetitious activity for so long? Yet, no doubt, it also sounds familiar. This routine is what American public education has put young people through for generations.

No wonder the national high school four-year graduation rate in the U.S. is 75 percent or that Boston’s is 63.2, in line with other urban areas, or that English High’s is 59.8. It’s actually amazing so many kids persist at doing these boring, specialized activities long enough to get diplomas.

Mayor Thomas Menino has said he wants the Boston Public Schools (BPS) to have a graduation rate of 80 percent by 2014. The “Building a Grad Nation” report from the American Promise Alliance wants to see 90 percent by 2020. Those goals will be difficult to achieve without some fundamental changes—and not in schools’ management structures, personnel or standardized testing, which have been recent popular focuses for “reform.”

The system has to stop trying to fit all young people—who, of course, have a broad range of experiences, learning styles and goals, even languages and cultures—into narrow academic activities and outcomes.

Experts have discovered that people have seven different learning styles. Using all of them in varying amounts works best for most students. Most public schools use mostly two styles: linguistic and logical. Few schools routinely offer educational activities during the day that employ visual, aural, social, solitary and physical ways of learning.

Students who manage to learn using only two styles in traditional restricted school environments do make it to high school graduation in 12 years. Many others, understandably, just don’t.

Providing vocational education, apprenticeships and similar forms of alternative education would also more inclusively educate young people. Early this year, Mayor Menino announced plans to transform Madison Park Technical Vocational High School into “a premier job training institution for city youth” next fall.

Madison Park is being revamped based on “Pathways to Prosperity,” a brilliant, important report issued by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in February 2011. The report looks at educational needs in the U.S. and at some successful European educational systems. It calls for “offering high school students ‘multiple pathways’ to success rather than over-emphasizing a traditional four-year college route.”

Madison Park is just a start. BPS needs to offer multiple pathways to all students. Anyone interested in learning more can read “Pathways to Prosperity” at gse.harvard.edu.

If more young people are to graduate, the educational system has to expand the opportunities to learn and succeed it offers them.

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