Patience, Urgency, and The Serenity Prayer

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." -- The Serenity Prayer

 “Until we solve poverty, we’ll never solve high school graduation rates," Russell Rumberger recently said. He is a professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara and he also runs the California Dropout Research Project at UCSB.

Rumberger is doing important work, he is deeply passionate about high school graduation rates, and he raises important points about diplomas not necessarily representing student learning -- but I don't think he's right about that comment. 

I don't know the exact context in which he made the comment. The article writes about Los Angeles Unified School District's goal of graduating 100% of its students; if by "solve high school graduation rates" he means graduate 100% of students, then I suppose he might be right. I would be shocked if anyone in LAUSD believes they are going to graduate 100% of students anytime soon. But surely Rumberger doesn't believe there's nothing that can be done to improve their rates?

The caveat of "until we solve poverty" makes me cringe. It screams complacency. It reminds me of Mike Johnston describing the "two camps" of education policy: waiting for kids to change, or waiting for adults to change. As Johnston put it, "If we believe that we’re waiting to change poverty, then we can be patient for a long time." Poverty is a deeply embedded, complex social problem. I worry that the implication of "until we solve poverty" is that we necessarily have to give up on the chances of a whole bunch of kids who were born into low-income families because, well, it's out of our hands.

Yes, children living in poverty indisputably face more daunting challenges than those who are not. The classroom is not a vacuum. Every day, kids come to school hungry or sick or not knowing where they're going to sleep that night -- it's asking a lot to expect kids in those situations to learn. But by saying we have to wait until poverty is solved to address a troubling graduation rate, to help those kids make it through the K-12 system, the buck has been passed. Then it becomes someone else's job. 

Of course "solving poverty" would help address this problem, in a big way, even; I have no doubt that it would improve outcomes drastically. But I don't believe that a society without poverty would be a society without education challenges. Besides the fact that poverty is incredibly difficult to “solve,” eradicating poverty is not a panacea for education outcomes (middle class and wealthy students drop out of high school, too). Yes, we need better economic policies to combat poverty and lift more people out of it. I think it's among the most important public policy problems in America -- of course it's worthy of focus and attention and greater resources.

But I don't believe education outcomes are wholly dependent on family income. As evidence, I submit McMinnville School District, with nearly 60% of low-income students, graduating students at a 12% higher rate than the state average, including about 20% higher for Latino and ELL students. North Clackamas School District is another leading example, with 50% low income students and graduation rates at 83% overall and 77% for low income students. In 2013, Sunset High School had a graduation rate for Latino students of 55%; they called it "embarrassing," made some intentional decisions, and raised it by 20 points in two years.

Unsurprisingly, there's more than one "secret" to their success. For McMinnville, "super-skilled teachers with all the right techniques in their tool kits paying close attention to every child," is the key, writes Betsy Hammond. For North Clackamas, a longer list of strategies described by Hammond: "Prevent chronic absenteeism. Treat minority students in a culturally affirming manner. Curb out-of-school suspensions. Monitor student grades mid-term and intervene to prevent Ds and Fs." At Sunset, another laundry list from Hammond: "Build strong relationships with every student, provide flexible tutoring and summer school and meet Latino students and parents in their language and on their terms when possible."

What's notable is that none of those three public school districts waited for poverty to be solved. They each deployed strategies specifically for their students. They set goals. They re-arranged resources. They made tough decisions. They did something

There is a tension in the education policy world between patience and urgency. Patience reminds us of the complexities, the moving pieces, and the unseen obstacles entrenched in big problems like a low graduation rate. Patience warns you not to make things worse. Urgency screams that every year we wait to do something, another class of kids is the victim of inaction. Urgency can't believe you're just sitting there.

An article came out a couple days ago from the Statesman-Journal with this nugget: "Statewide, only 55 percent of [Native American] children graduate high school on time, compared to 72 percent of that demographic group nationally." The headline was: "Oregon schools fall short for children of color, immigrant children." It's devastating. Maybe it's possible to concede to those in Rumberger's camp that 100% graduation rate is impossible without massive economic change -- but could we make that 55% graduation rate for Native American students 65% or 75% or 85%? What about 56%?

Have we forgotten that behind these numbers are real, live kids?

All of this reminds me of the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." I don't think the school system, by itself, can change poverty, but I know there are important things that the school system can change to produce better outcomes. We would be wise to recognize the difference -- and do something.