We’ve talked about “wicked problems” before — problems that involve complex social processes, multiple actors, and murky causal pathways (link, link). A particularly important example of such a problem currently confronting the United States is the high school dropout crisis. The crisis is particularly intense in high-poverty areas, but it is found in all states and all parts of urban, suburban, and rural America. (Here is an earlier discussion of these issues; link.)
The consequences of this crisis are severe. More than a million high school students a year drop out of high school. Over 50% of these dropouts come from fewer than 20% of high schools. These young people have virtually no feasible pathways to a middle class life or a job in the 21st-century economy. And this in turn means a permanent underclass of unemployed or underemployed young people. This in turn has consequences for crime rates, social service budgets, incarceration rates, and a serious productivity gap for our economy as a whole. So the problem is an enormously important one. (The Alliance for Excellent Education is a national organization devoted to tracking this issue; link. Another important resource is Building a Grad Nation ((link) from the America’s Promise Alliance.)
Changing this current situation requires change of behavior on the parts of many independent parties — teenagers, parents, teachers, principals, elected officials, and foundation officers, to name only some of the most obvious participants.
There are many social actors who have an interest in this problem and a commitment to trying to resolve it. Teachers, principals, school boards; mayors and governors; non-profit organizations; foundations; universities and schools of education; citizens’ groups — there are committed and concerned actors throughout the country that are highly motivated to attempt to solve the problem.
But it is very, very hard to marshal these actors into effective attacks on the causes of this crisis. One part of the problem is strategic — what are the interventions that can work on a large scale? How can a school system introduce changes in behavior and organization that really change the outcomes in a measurable way?
Another part of the problem is a coordination problem. How can we succeed in gaining commitment and cooperation across this range of actors, even if we have some credible strategies at hand? It often seems that every actor has a different theory of the problem, and often it is difficult to gain concerted action across diverse actors. A foundation has one strategy; a school board has a different theory; and the teachers themselves work on the basis of a different understanding of the problem as well. All are well motivated; but there is a clash of efforts.
In this context the Diplomas Now initiative is particularly encouraging. It is focused on a national initiative to target the “drop out factories” through a clear theory of how to create turn-around schools. It is referred to as a civic Marshall Plan. It is based on careful empirical research. It has developed a clear theory about how interventions with children through the schools can impact persistence through graduation. It has mobilized a strategic group of partners — CityYear, Communities in Schools, and Talent Development at Johns Hopkins. And it has an ambitious and effective national strategy that is already being implemented.
And the most impressive fact is that Diplomas Now is beginning to work. There are DN schools in some of the toughest urban contexts in America; these schools are showing real measurable progress; and the example is spreading to other cities and systems. Concrete evidence of these successes is highlighted by a wide range of committed leaders, academics, and corps members at the CityYear National Leadership Conference in Washington (link).
So maybe we can have some cautious optimism that our wicked problems can be solved, with sufficient commitment and persistence from a range of actors.