What keeps a kid in school?

In 2005, at a critical reading conference at Washington University in St. Louis, Margaret Finders from Washington University presented research on the reason why students do not drop out of school, i.e., why they stay in. The number one reason students stay in school: they have the sense that teachers care about them.

So the questions I asked myself were:

  • How do you show students that you care about them?
  • How do you care for students that are most likely to drop out and may not care about themselves or about school?
  • How do certain curricula prevent demonstration of care?
  • What is the relationship between the draconian nature of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) with its emphasis on punishment and the establishment of a caring environment in the classroom?

If we take all these questions together, you might show students you care by responding to their specific needs and interests, tailoring certain aspects of the curriculum to what motivates them, and providing support and encouragement in areas that might not be related directly to academic performance, e.g., their interest in art, music, sports, etc. This is especially relevant for students who are on the edge of staying in or dropping out of school.

Yet with each new Edison school, with each new implementation of Open Court, with each new implementation of data-driven assessment systems, and with each successive school added to the list of NCLB Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) failures, we see the rise of a curriculum designed to do one thing: improve test scores.

If a student is already struggling to find a way to care about school, emphasis on test preparation and test performance will do nothing to help. Obviously, it will do just the opposite. Students who find no interest in traditional academic subjects and who find self-esteem and purpose in art or music will have nowhere to go for solace. And so will likely drop out.

Teachers, especially high school teachers who have 100 to 150 students, already struggled before NCLB with the task of finding the time to reach each student on a personal, caring level. NCLB and the rise of the test prep curriculum make it less and less possible to care about students.

In fact, NCLB and these test prep curricula do just the opposite: instead of seeing students as people in need of care, students are seen as statistics. Each student, especially the students on the edge of passing the state test (“the bubble kids”), can potentially make or break the school’s progress towards AYP.

And if the student does drop out? Well, that’s one less to worry about affecting your test scores.

This is the poisonous environment that NCLB has created in our schools and why it will only make the drop-out rate worse.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.