For three million college kids and the same number from high school, there will be caps, gowns, speeches, parties, and plans for college or a job. But for more than a million young persons this year there will be no joy of receiving a diploma or entering the workplace. Rather than lock up our youngsters, import workers and export jobs, wouldn’t it be great if our dropouts could be helped to complete school, finish college, and find employment?
A gifted educator has shown that this process of change can indeed happen in our public schools by building on a characteristic all of us are born with—curiosity. Every year around this time, which is not far from Father’s Day, I think of the work of our daughter who succumbed to breast cancer four years ago at the age of 31, having devoted her entire life to making sure young Americans of all walks of life have a chance to participate in their own graduation ceremonies.
Being a professor of education, Dr. Jhumki Basu knew the numbers well, and the numbers are grim. Here’s the darkest one: A child drops out of school once every 26 seconds in our country. And when he or she does, we all pay the price: High school dropouts cost the government between $320 and $350 billion annually in lost wages, taxable income, health, welfare, and incarceration costs. Someone who did not complete high school will earn $630,000 less over their lifetime than someone who earned a high school diploma. Even more frightening, the Manhattan Institute has found that only 48 percent of African-American males earn a high school diploma, and that one in four black males who drop out of high school end up incarcerated.
On the other side of the educational divide, bounties await: Employers hired 10.2 percent more college graduates in 2012 compared with 2011, and research by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company showed that in 2011, 30 percent of American companies had positions open for more than six months for lack of candidates with appropriate skills. This was at a time when unemployment hovered above nine percent. Clearly, this is a nationwide crisis.
None of what I’m saying, sadly, is new. And yet, too often our conversations about education fail to focus on the kids who need our help the most. When most researchers are talking asabout policy and technology and other impressive stuff, Jhumki believed the answer was already present in the student.
All children are innately curious in their early years. Then the curiosity is beaten out of them through regimentalized curricula and rote learning in public schools. Jhumki, a science teacher, Columbia doctorate, and NYU professor, was convinced that science—if presented dramatically and usefully—appeals to most young people’s curiosity. And immersion in science sparks critical inquiry, the ability to think independently, work collaboratively, ask questions, find answers, and develop self-confidence to complete school and college.
Having worked with children from poor communities of California, Russia, South Africa, and New York, Jhumki developed her teaching model based on the inalienable fact that if a child’s fund of knowledge, and his or her own interests and aspirations, are included in the learning process—an approach known as democratic teaching—then that child, however adverse be the situation, is motivated to learn. She proved the model at some of New York’s lowest-performing schools, and at the School for Democracy and Leadership, a public school she co-founded in 2004 in a high-need area of Brooklyn, NY. Dropout rates at SDL plummeted from 70% of the community it was carved from, Crown Heights, to less than 10%. She expanded the model to impact more schools through field-based research at NYU. Kids who began as freshmen at SDL in 2004 today are mostly graduates, some are in graduate school, others in jobs or self-employed, universally rising from the runway Dr. Basu built for them to become respected citizens of their communities.
“We lose so many black, Hispanic, and female scientists every year,” Jhumki said in a speech shortly before her death, “and students from low-income families, students who don’t get an adequate science background, students with various disabilities, whose needs aren’t met. I feel we really miss out on those students in particular, in part because they are not willing to jump the step every time they are told to do so. They want something more than that. And those are the students whom we want! We want those students who say, ‘I don’t want it just the regular way, I want it to be meaningful to me, and I want it to make sense to me.’”
After her untimely death in 2008, our daughter’s legacy is being carried forward by science teachers of under-served schools through Sci-Ed Innovators, a movement built upon her vision and supported by academic, corporate and government institutions. As methods forged by Jhumki become prevalent, it will be my gift every Father’s Day when a growing number of American men and women from marginalized communities “find their passions and aim for success even when the road is difficult, and become a source of positive change in the world.”