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Dropout Discussion Heats Up Teacher Town Hall

Live from the Celebration of Teaching and Learning Conference in New York

Greetings from the Big Apple, where thousands of educators have convened for the 6th annual Celebration of Teaching and Learning, hosted by WNET.

At a session known as the "Teachers Town Hall," led by PBS' Alison Stewart, a roomful of educators voiced their thoughts on expanded learning time, dropouts, and turnaround schools. The discussion on why students drop out of school—the only portion of the session with no panelists—was perhaps the most insightful. It was certainly the most contentious.

A young teacher in the audience got things going by declaring the dropout problem a consequence of popular culture, which he said "celebrates sensationalism and fast money" rather than academics. Kids want to make money right away and don't understand that they can have two or three careers during a lifetime, he said. While giving students role models would help, he said, it's tough to get those people in the classroom.

A college professor and documentarian immediately took issue with that teacher's explanation. "Students time and time again want to learn. But they're increasingly being taught for tests," she said. "It's a disservice to youth to say they're taking messages from the media. They want to learn and we're failing them in a lot of ways."

Several teachers said students these days are less curious because they fail to make connections between academics and the world around them (which some linked to test-crazed policies). One teacher advocated setting up mentorships for youth at risk of dropping out, to help them "develop meaningful relationships one-on-one."

A Massachussetts teacher with 37 years in the classroom said kids aren't dropping out, but "we're driving them out" of school by setting up a narrow standard for success. "We don't expect every student to be a great athlete, but we do expect every student to be a scholar," said the teacher, who characterized his school district as "blue collar." "We cannot make kids become scholars. We have to remember that we may see success and happiness in life not in the way kids may see it." He told an anecdote about calling an electrician and having a former student show up at his door, implying that the student's career choice, though not scholarly, was lucrative and a success.

Lots more to hear and learn from the teachers here, so I'm headed back to the maze of workshops, panels, and exhibitors.

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