Too often, education leaders think of schools and programs serving students who have gaps in their education, who are early parents, who are incarcerated or recently have been, who need to work while they finish school, or who don’t fit in our mostly cookie-cutter schools as a distraction or a drag on performance. This excludes millions of kids from the education reform conversation.
How many students are disconnected from traditional education systems because of life circumstances or their choices exactly? No one knows because policymakers and educators don’t even care enough to gather the data that we need to answer that question.
We can, however, cobble together an estimate: ProPublica found that about half a million kids were enrolled in alternative schools—and that number has held relatively steady. Now add to that the 2.1 million kids ages 16-24 who are not in school and do not have a high school diploma. And on any given day, another 43,000 are attending school in a juvenile justice facility (and 70,000 children are being held in immigration detention).
That’s close to 3 million kids— student population that’s more than all the students educated in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Miami, combined.
Once in a while, you read a heartwarming story about a kid who beat the odds or the teacher who helped them to do it. These stories make great fodder for conferences and the media but obscure or minimize the day-to-day reality for millions of American kids.
At its best, education reform is about a willingness to learn more, constantly strive to do better and endeavor to leave no one behind. But while reform experts work like that on issues such as school choice, curriculum, and teacher effectiveness, when it comes to these disconnected young people the support for change—and capacity to change—is scarce.
We should do better by these students because it’s the right thing to do to help them have a chance at a life with choices, purpose and self-determination. But there is a practical reason as well: Ignoring these students is an enormous missed opportunity because kids who aren’t well-served in traditional settings are not troublemakers, they’re the key to real change and a place to learn lessons that we can apply to the whole system.
This is especially true as the education system becomes more “unbundled” and different “alternative” models become more mainstream in elementary and secondary education. This is why the opportunity to change the life trajectory for kids whose statistical chances are vanishingly small is also arguably the best bet in education reform that no one is making.
So how can you invest or help create change? Here are three things that can change immediately and without any governmental action or political change:
- For philanthropy: Make a transformative impact immediately by providing resources to direct service providers who serve these students (and the organizations that they rely on for strategy, technical assistance, training and other support). Relatively modest investments will have huge returns in environments where every dollar counts.
- For people who care about equity: Move these students from the periphery to the center of your work by asking how they are included in your work. And if not, ask why not. Anyone who cares about equity and measuring success should constantly ask how the least-visible students are doing.
- For innovators: Solve the pressing problems for highly-mobile students (for example data sharing or coordination among disconnected systems and agencies) and you’ll find yourself with a solution for many more kids, communities and public systems. If challenges get more concentrated in concentric circles, consider starting at the middle and then working your way out rather than the other way around.
For years, policymakers and school leaders have too often treated disconnected kids as though they were a drag on the system. That’s a mistake. Like so many other missed opportunities, the most challenging problem might be the one that in the long run pays off the most.