By Ben Velderman
GUILFORD, Conn. – Armand Fusco has dedicated over 50 years of his life to public education, first as a classroom teacher and later as a guidance counselor, a principal, a superintendent and a university professor.
The 80-year-old educator and scholar has seen virtually every educational fad and reform there is, but none has come close to solving what he calls “the most serious socio-economic problem facing the nation” - school dropouts.
“Reforms intended to improve inner city schools do not address the dropouts because they are considered throwaway children – out of sight, out of mind,” Fusco tells EAGnews.org in an email exchange.
The “throwaway” children – many of whom are black males and Latinos – all have one thing in common: they are functionally illiterate, lacking basic reading, writing and math skills. As a result, “they experience academic failure day in and day out,” and have no compelling reason to remain in school, Fusco says.
On average, 7,200 kids drop out of school every day, totaling 1.2 million dropouts per year. Over the course of three years, that’s a population that surpasses the size of Chicago.
Dropping out of school causes obvious economic hardships for young people. They earn far less than their high school- and college-educated peers, assuming they can even find work.
Low-skilled workers have unemployment rates that are two-to-four times higher than those with higher levels of training, and they also spend more time out of work, writes Dropout Nation editor RiShawn Biddle.
But dropping out of school results in more than lost income; it also leads to lost lives.
School dropouts account for 80 percent of the nation’s prison population, which Fusco sums up this way: “If a student can’t read, he can’t learn, he can’t get a job, he can’t survive, so he can’t stay within the law.”
It’s a serious problem, but Fusco says only one of the education reforms being proposed and enacted throughout the nation has the potential to solve it: holding back third graders until they acquire adequate math and reading skills.
The research backs him up: students who don’t have basic literacy skills by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
Third grade retention “is the only policy that may have some lasting effect, and it’s still in its infancy,” Fusco says.
A few states do require students to be proficient in reading before leaving the third grade – most notably Florida and Indiana – but he warns that approach will not succeed unless there are intensive literacy intervention programs for struggling students.
“It should begin the summer following grade three and continue, if need be, by having a minimum of four hours a day devoted to literacy instruction,” Fusco says, adding that “interventions could and should begin even earlier.”
Fusco has literally written the book on the dropout problem. He released a 500-page tome earlier this year called “School Pushouts: A Plague of Hopelessness Perpetuated by Zombie Schools.”
As the title reveals, Fusco blames the dropout problem on “zombie schools” – his term for failing schools – and the adults who allow them to exist.
The former superintendent places much of the blame on ineffective school boards that fail to provide strong leadership and shirk their oversight duties. Weak school boards cede too much control over the operation of the school district to the local teachers unions.
Clauses in teacher contracts constrain school administrators from effectively managing the school by placing limits on class sizes, meeting times, teacher evaluations, teacher assignments, grievance procedures and layoff procedures, among other things.
“The very public institutions intended for student learning have become focused instead on adult employment,” he says.
Fusco also blames state departments of education “that tread too lightly on local control,” thus allowing weak-kneed school boards to exist.
“(The states) are the ones that have the responsibility and are in control,” he says. “There is no one else to blame.”
Fusco recoils at the typical union suggestion that parents are ultimately to blame for allowing their children to attend school unprepared to learn. Unions only make that argument to shift responsibility from their members, he says.
“What parents can be blamed for is not supporting what the schools are trying to do academically, not helping enforce discipline, and not getting involved with the school, although many single parents don’t have the time to do it,” he adds.
‘A time bomb exploding ‘
Fusco spends hours every morning scouring various education blogs and websites for the latest reports and studies concerning school dropouts. The research has led Fusco to break with fellow education reformers over the value of charter schools, vouchers and school choice.
Such options might provide “an immediate escape from the bondage of failing public schools,” but only if there is a successful school nearby, he says. Too often, students end up trading a failing school for one that is “less failing.”
But he reserves his strongest criticism for reformers who want to expand preschool programs.
“That’s probably the most insane reform,” he says. “What is absent from the discussion is what happens to children upon leaving preschool. Since this effort is primarily in the inner cities, and since the inner cities have the preponderance of failing schools, the reality is that the preschoolers simply move on to a failing school. That makes no sense.
“What preschool does is to provide many union jobs, and that’s really what it’s about.”
Instead, Fusco advocates policies that are designed to boost reading skills. That list includes teaching literacy in all classes, using online learning programs for intervention purposes, having schools partner with local colleges and universities and, of course, third grade retention.
He notes that the third grade reform “engine has not picked up steam,” possibly because holding students back is a blow to the self-image of both the students and their parents.
But research shows that third grade retention only works if it is accompanied with an effective reading intervention strategy. Holding students back simply to give more of the same only results in continued failure, he warns.
Educators also need to revamp the high school experience, since this “is where dropouts occur.” He says “improving high schools – what they do and how they do it – could be a significant help in stemming the tide of dropouts.”
“Remember what the basic problem is – dropouts are in all respects illiterate and that is why they are failing,” Fusco says.
He sums up the urgency of the dropout problem this way: ”This is a time bomb exploding economically and socially every twenty-six seconds.”