I was invited yesterday to give a talk on drop-out prevention. Because I am pretty sensitive to the general critique that public intellectuals often go too far afield from the discipline they were trained in–Henry Louis Gates is rarely asked to pontificate on slave narratives, Michael Eric Dyson rarely is asked to speak on matters of religion–I try to use these opportunities to bring my expertise to bear. 

So I began my speech first talking about the numbers. The ratio of drop-outs to graduates has been steadily decreasing over the past few years in Baltimore City, and this decrease has come largely because of efforts to deal with the particular problems black males face. For me this is a signal that the problems of public school systems aren't necessarily intractable. Baltimore's poverty rate hasn't gone down appreciably over the past few years, nor have the rates of any other social indicator used to predict school outcomes. 

Long story short. Institutions matter. You can make structural changes in institutions that lead to improvements, even if there are no improvements in the context the institution is situated in. (You can change the school even if the neighborhood goes to hell.)

With that said there are still far too many people dropping out. And there are far too many folks skipping school. Which means there is much more work to be done.

Now the thing is, the literature is fairly clear about what works. We know that students are less likely to drop out if they are identified as a risk immediately. We know they are far less likely to drop out if some combination of peers and teachers consistently ask them about their long term vision, consistently emphasize goal-setting. We know they are far less likely to drop out if communication systems within schools (between teachers and students) and between schools and neighborhoods (between parents and teachers) exist.

Up to this point this sounds like a straightforward educator's lecture. I could very well be an Ed D or have a PhD in education. Where are the politics?

Who is the drop-out? Exactly why does he (and we are for the most part talking about "he") drop-out? If we think of care as a political resource that people compete over, where exactly is the "drop-out" in this care hierarchy? 

Similarly when we think of the costs of "dropping out" why do we consistently use economic metrics? (You can't drop out! You won't get a job!)

Through a series of tried and true techniques that have both intra- and inter-racial causes AND effects, we identify, track, and design strategies for bodies, classrooms, schools, neighborhoods, dividing them into ones that get care, and ones that don't.

Thinking about the drop-out in this manner we can think of the drop-out as not just a technical issue–what devices do we create to keep more kids in school? We can think of the drop-out as a serious POLITICAL issue. And then the question becomes, how do we increase the capacity of these kids to get more care for themselves.

I know I've already gone a bit long, but in the question and answer session a woman asked me how we can expand the views of these kids so they can know more than just their neighborhoods. I gave her an answer she probably didn't expect to hear–we don't need to get these kids to know more than just their neighborhoods. Everything they could possibly need to thrive and survive as full humans already EXISTS in their neighborhood. Getting them to dig THAT is the question. The knuckleheads in my neighborhood taught me more about resiliency and commitment and loyalty than any other group of individuals outside my fraternity (who themselves are…well…knuckleheads). 

I invited two of the most committed and politically progressive schoolteachers I know to the event. One of them emailed me afterwards:


I wonder how many people understood what you meant when you talked about having learned from others in your neighborhood growing up, and about everything necessary being located right there–or right here–wherever we are.  I mean, I really wonder:  10%? 50%? probably not more than 50, but possibly a lot less.  I tend to be idealistic!

Anyway, one thing that I think very few people see, almost none of us actually, is that power in high schools already belongs to the young people.  Nothing happens in a high school that the young people don't tolerate.  Ultimately, the schools' weapons are only exclusion and force, because the students more or less completely reject the adults' weak attempts at persuasion. 

Another way to look at it is that there would be no "educational crisis" in the land if "those students" would just do what they were told–come to school, go to class, fill in the blanks on the worksheets, do their homework, etc. It is their refusal to do what they're told that provokes the crisis. Obviously there's a literature on black student resistance to school–I'm just taking it one step further to say that the resistance is actually setting the terms of the political fight over education resources (no child left behind, race to the top, squeezing teachers unions, etc.). "You can get access to some of this money, if you can figure out how to control the students." –only the students are not about to let themselves be controlled.

All of which is to say that the power to change schools is not only right in the neighborhood, but actually right in the school building, if the students' resistance can be organized rather than disorganized, or if we can learn to learn from what the students are trying to teach us.