Sunday, October 17, 2010

Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah & question to anticipate: “What were we thinking?”

Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote a powerful article, originally printed in the Washington Post, that was re-printed today in the Dallas Morning News: "Accepted now, unforgivable later."

He asked a critical question for the future as we will look back on what we are now allowing to happen: "What were we thinking?"  We need to be asking such questions now. Much suffering could be avoided!

While Professor Appiah listed four "contenders for future moral condemnation," he left out our nation's high school dropout rate.  The scandalous reality is that in 2010 less than 70% of our U.S. students are finishing high school within 4 years?  This disaster certainly merits being a contender for future moral condemnation. In too many urban school districts the graduation percentage is even less than 50%! 

In 20 years hopefully graduation rates will significantly improve so we can be looking back at current numbers and exclaim: “What were we thinking!”

It is such a “What were we thinking?” question that is at the heart of the most successful dropout prevention efforts. In 2005 the School Archive Project was started at a Dallas ISD middle school. It started with the bolting of a 350-pound vault to the school lobby floor to function as a time capsule. It holds letters parents write to their child about their dreams for their child, and a second letter written by that student to themselves about their own dreams and goals. Both these letters are placed by the student into one self-addressed envelope that will be retrieved at the class 10-year reunion. Students know that at this same reunion they will be invited to speak to the then current 8th grade students about their recommendations for success. They are warned to be prepared for questions such as “What would you do differently if you were 13 again?”

As Professor Appiah says: “… we'll be better off for anticipating the question.” 

That has been proven in the School Archive Project.

The first high school that began getting most of the School Archive Project students in 2005 had averaged a 34% graduation rate from 2000 through 2007. Then the graduation rate began to go up! By the time the Class of 2010 graduated the graduation rate had risen to over 60% due to this future focus and other improvements!

The Archive Project began to spread in 2009 due to the results being seen, and the negligible cost since such letter writing fits easily within normal lesson plans. Now six larger, 500-pound vaults have been bolted to the lobby floors in 6 more Dallas ISD schools. Such a vault in a place of honor, with hundreds of letters being archived each year in it, and passed many times every day by all students, sends a constant reminder of the need to work and plan for the future. Ten-year class reunion planning changes the student perspective about the passing of time.

The power of focusing on the future, and questions of accountability, will change our culture more than anything money can buy. That is the power of preparing every child to answer, 10 years after middle school, that priceless question:  
What would you do differently if you were 13 again?”