Question: What causes the high dropout rate in minority communities, and what can curb it?
Pedro Noguera: Well you know there are many factors that influence the dropout rate. What I like to remind people of is dropping out is a symptom of a larger problem and if you don’t address the underlying causes then you never can solve that problem. Kids don’t dropout in high school. They typically the signs that they’re becoming increasingly alienated from school show up much earlier and the problem is that schools don’t intervene early or effectively. Some kids leave because of the pull of the streets. Some kids leave because they need to work to support their family. Some kids leave because nobody at school cares about them. They haven’t made any connections with adults, because they’re bored, because they don’t think what they’re learning is relevant or meaningful, so there are a lot of reasons why kids end up leaving school. What I’ve found is that there are schools that serve large numbers of poor African-American, Latino kids that where they are graduating, where they are thriving and what we don’t do is learn from those schools and do more what they do and what works and what you find in those schools generally is strong relationships between the adults and the students, a real clear sense of mission about why they’re there, an understanding of how to make the curriculum relevant to the lives of those students, all the things that are lacking typically you find present and so it’s not as though it’s as hard as it sometimes seems. I think right now we have policymakers who are kind of you know banging their heads thinking what will it take to reduce the dropout rate and I keep saying well look at the places where you have low dropout rates and do more of that.
Question: Are high-dropout schools hurt more by insufficient external (government) or internal (community) support?
Pedro Noguera: Well I think it… the factors are internal and external, so for example doing work in Newark right now, Newark, New Jersey and it has high dropout rates. One of the big factors is that kids start to realize when they’re in high school there are no jobs for them in Newark and so the… Why stay in school if you… education is not going to result in a real change in their life, either access to college or access to a job the motivation to stay in school diminishes over time. So it’s what is going on outside of school, but also then you have parents and adults in the community who also have had experience of having education not work for them, not open doors, so what starts to happen is there is a sense within the community that education is not the pathway to success and that’s born out of experience. It’s not a myth. It’s true, and so what you need to do is you need to start to create a different reality by creating some schools that do in fact open doors and create pathways to opportunity for kids.
Question: Which is a larger problem for failing school districts: lack of funding or misuse of funding?
Pedro Noguera: Well money is certainly important. You know in this country we consistently spend the most money on the most affluent kids and the least money on the poorest kids, so I would say if money didn’t matter then why don’t we just reverse it for awhile and see, try it out, but nobody is interested in that, at least not in the affluent communities, but nonetheless, it’s not simply about money. There are schools in high poverty areas that have resources and you see resources wasted or used ineffectively, so it’s money is important, but by itself it is not a solution. It’s how the money is applied. It’s both the efficient use of resources, but also the effective use you know and that is where good leadership is necessary. Accountability is necessary to make sure people are doing what they’re supposed to do. It’s essential that you evaluate to make sure that if you set up a program to help kids that there is evidence that it actually helps kids. So I would say that money is always a factor, but it is never a solution by itself.
Recorded on January 28, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen