• by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2000 • Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.

The year 2000 is a good time to take stock of where we are, why we are here, and what is needed. Really, we already know what is needed. You may recall a book by Robert Fulghum, entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

In another of his books, Robert Fulghum tells a story of a philosophy class he taught (Fulghum, 1993). On the first day of class, he announced that they were going to play musical chairs. The students enthusiastically arranged their chairs in a line with the seats in alternating directions. No one asked how to play. They already knew the rules.

He started the tape recorder playing “Stars and Stripes,” and the students marched around the chairs. Mind you, these were seniors in high school. They had not played musical chairs since second grade. But they still knew how and jumped into the game without hesitation. Musical chairs! All right!

He removed a few chairs and stopped the music. The students scrambled to find seats. Those without chairs were stunned. They knew how this game worked: the music stops, you get a chair. How could they not have a chair so soon? Written across their faces was, “How dumb can I be?”

Oh well, too bad. They were losers. You are out. Go stand against the wall – over there.

The music continued as the remaining students marched around. Chairs were removed. The music stopped. Students went crazy trying to get a chair.

As the game went on, the quest for chairs became serious. Then it became rough. The girls were not going to fight jocks for chairs. Losers to the wall.

Now they were down to two members of the wrestling team. They were willing to push, knee, kick, or bite to get that last chair. This is war! When the music stopped, one guy jerked the chair out from under his opponent and slammed down into it. He had a look of triumph on his face. He raised his hands high with his forefingers signaling Number One, Number One!

He acted as if the class admired him and his accomplishment. He got the chair. “I’m the winner!”

Wrong. The losers, lined up against the back wall, thought he was a jerk.

This is not a game. Games are supposed to be fun. This got too serious too fast – like high school life, like real life.

Did they want to play again? A few of the jocks did. But not the rest of the class. It all came back to them now. Big deal.

Traditional Education Game

That is how we traditionally play the game of musical chairs. It is similar to the way we traditionally deal with schooling.

For example, if you are watching the game being played, you can usually tell who is not going to make it. In musical chairs, it is easy to see who is moving slower than the others. You can tell by the way a particular girl behaves that she may be embarrassed to run too fast or to fight too hard to get a chair. You can tell who seems confused when the music is stopped, who lets others grab chairs from under him. It is easy to see who will fail.

Sometimes, when the person leading the game, and playing the music, watches the marching students, there is even some choosing when to stop the music to help favorite students win.

We do the same with school children. It is usually easy to see who is moving slower than the others. We can tell who is easily distracted. We think less of those we believe do not want to run or do not fight very hard.

Judgements are made about students’ potential. We stop and start praise, encouragement, and resources based on our judgements of who can win. Often, those judgements follow students all the way through school – and through life. How many times have you heard people say they can look at a class of first graders and identify who will not make it to graduation?

In the game of musical chairs, there are certain characteristics you have to have to do well. It helps to be of a certain size. You really need to be able to take stock quickly of what is happening around you. You must be fast and you have to keep an ear out for the music. If you do not have those characteristics, too bad. You are out.

Schools have traditionally been designed to serve students with certain characteristics too. It has often made sense to many people to prescribe teaching methods and programs to serve the most students with the least amount of effort or expense.

So, grand school reform schemes have been designed based on the characteristics of White, middle-class, mostly male children who speak English. And then, almost as an afterthought, they are adopted or slightly adapted for children of color, for girls, for those who speak another language, and for poor kids.

Such “trickle down” efforts usually end up reforming schools to benefit those who are already doing well and say “life’s tough” to those who are not.

What happens when a student who was out tries to get back into the game? In musical chairs, no one is allowed back. It would not be fair to the other players. You can watch, but you cannot be a part of the action. You do not have the skill, you do not have the speed. If someone tries to get back in, there is an uproar. You should be satisfied with how far you made it. The game is for someone else now. Be quiet.

In a school setting, if a young person has been labeled at risk, what happens? Students labeled at risk immediately become problems. And what do people do with problems? They either ignore the problems, get rid of them, or try to fix them.

Ignore the problems: Put the problem kids in special education classes or in classrooms with watered-down, connect-the-dot curriculum or give them the least-experienced, least powerful teachers, babysit them – be not concerned about whether or not they are learning – and they will not interfere with the real students.

Get rid of the problems: Send the students who do not fit the mold to alternative settings or encourage them to leave school.

Try to “fix” the problems: If only they were not poor, or they spoke English better or their parents cared, then they could learn. Fix them by providing remedial instruction and compensatory programs and slow things down in order for the students to get it. Try to train parents on how to raise their kids, and we tell poor parents to think like middle-class ones. Ignore, get rid of, fix…

But, if we are just re-arranging the same number of chairs, can more students find a seat when the music stops?

Obviously, re-arranging the chairs in the game does not accommodate more winners. We can do the math: 10 chairs in a line is the same as 10 chairs in a circle. Yet in schools, we often re-arrange personnel and programs but keep the same barriers in place.

Winners and Losers

There are certain things we get as a result of the way we play this education game. We get low achievement. We get caring teachers who burn out. And we get students dropping out.

Many reports show that despite the success of some dropout initiatives in some areas, the dropout picture remains strikingly troublesome. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report indicating that the dropout rate has climbed since 1982, and it is currently even higher than it was in 1967 (1997).

The NCES findings are consistent with the Intercultural Development Research Association’s (IDRA) attrition analyses in Texas and an IDRA dropout study released earlier this year entitled, Missing: Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools (Supik and Johnson, 1999).

Thirteen years ago at IDRA, we conducted the first comprehensive statewide study of school dropouts in Texas. Using a high school attrition formula, IDRA estimated that 86,000 students had not graduated from Texas public schools that year, costing the state $17.12 billion dollars in foregone income, lost tax revenues and increased criminal justice, welfare, unemployment and job training costs.

By 1998 – 12 years later – the estimated cumulative number of Texas school dropouts has grown to more than 1.2 million. Because these students were unable to complete high school, the state of Texas loses $319 billion.

Schools often assume that the target population – whether the target population is defined by race, by gender or by language – is to blame for educational failure. Deficit-models always try to change the characteristics of the student and the family, so that the student will fit into the school program.

A close look at national data dispels some myths about the reasons for the high dropout rates among Hispanic students.

Poverty is often cited as the reason so many Hispanic students dropout. But according to the data, poverty does not explain it. Within each income level, Hispanic students are substantially more likely to drop out.

Immigration status does not explain it either. The dropout rate of Hispanic students born in the United States is 17.9 percent.

Language proficiency is another reason that is often given. (We will ignore for the moment that English is the first language for many Hispanic students.) But speaking Spanish does not explain the high dropout rates among Hispanic students.

Hispanic students who speak Spanish at home and also speak English “well” or “very well” are as likely to remain in school as are their peers who speak only English.

IDRA studies have found that Hispanic students whose first language is Spanish and those whose parents encouraged bilingualism are more likely to remain in school.

Sometimes, the deficit view is more narrow: “Parents or minority parents don’t care.” Let me tell you about a friend of mine and her bright son. Like his sisters before him – and like most young children – Mark cried when his mother took him to his pre-kindergarten class. The teacher assured his mother that she would take care of him. Instead, when his mother left, the teacher locked Mark in a storage room all morning. He finally managed to climb out and tried to walk home. He got lost, and it took two hours for his mother to find him.

When he was in the first grade, he was struggling with his work. His parents worked with him, and his mother even visited the classroom to observe. But she never heard from the teacher and at the end of the school year, Mark had failing grades.

The teacher recommended retaining him. His parents knew that was not the best thing for Mark. The principal agreed since Mark had excellent test scores. The next year, Mark’s second grade teacher constantly compared him to his older sister, “You’re nothing like your sister.” By this time, Mark was already internalizing what was happening. He thought there was something wrong with him.

In the third grade, he was placed in a special education class where he was challenged even less. His parents continued to plead with the school officials. A school psychologist told them, “You Mexican people, you’re so close to him that you’ve damaged him.” Mark comforted his parents while still feeling guilty inside.

Throughout the following years, Mark continued to move through school, unchallenged, struggling, alone. His parents did everything they could. They got support from an outside agency, they remained active in school leadership. His mom was even PTA president by the time he reached high school.

It was then that a teacher told Mark, “You will never amount to anything, you should just drop out and get a GED.“ That is what Mark did early in high school. With the GED he could have attended a graduation ceremony, but refused knowing he had not earned a real diploma. He also had the daily reminder of three sisters who were succeeding in college.

Today, he is 24 years old and works night shifts at a grocery store. He appears well-adjusted, funny, religious. But his mother recognizes that he still has a low self-esteem. He tells her not to give up on him. He attended a community college for a semester and wants to try again someday.

He has no desire to get married until he can support his wife. And, as he says, if he is blessed with children, he wants to make sure he can support them like his father supported him.

Our families contribute much. The day-to-day activities that families do with their children – story-telling, singing, playing games, reading, talking and listening – all these have intellectual, emotional and physical benefits that enhance the child’s development and are strengths that the school can use.

This problem of playing the traditional education game that blames the students and families is perhaps the main reason we have failed to reduce dropout rates. You cannot really expect to solve a problem unless you diagnose it correctly.

In musical chairs, the promise is that the game will be fun – the music, the anticipation, being part of things. In education, the promise is that schooling is for everyone and is good for your future, that adults in school care about you, and that you will succeed if you do your best.

Mark did his best. The promise was broken for him. The promise is broken for the 1,370 young people who drop out of our nation’s schools every day.

A New Way to Play the Game

Back in Robert Fulghum’s philosophy class, the students had no desire to play musical chairs again. It was not fun after all.

But, he insisted that they play one more time, with one rule change. This time, if the students do not have a chair, they will sit in someone’s lap. Everybody stays in the game, it’s only a matter of where you sit. The students had to think about it for a minute. Well, OK.

They reset the chairs as before. Fulghum started the “Stars and Stripes.” They marched. He removed some chairs and stopped the music. There was a pause in the action. (Do I want a chair to myself? Do I want to sit on someone’s lap or have someone sit in mine? And who?) The class got seated, but the mood had changed. There was laughter, giggling. When the game began again, there was a change of pace. What is the hurry?

When the number of chairs dwindled to force two to a chair, a dimension of grace entered in, as the role of sittee and sitter was clarified: Oh no, please, after you. Some advance planning was evident.

As the game continued and more and more people had to share one chair, a kind of gymnastic dance form developed. It became a group accomplishment to get everyone branched out on knees. Students with organizational skills came to the fore – it is a people puzzle to solve now. “Big people on the bottom first, put your arms around him, sit back, easy, easy.”

When there was one chair left, the class laughed and delightfully managed to make sure their weight was evenly distributed. If they tumbled, they would get up and try again until everyone was sitting down. Everyone was triumphant.

The only one who had trouble with this paradigm shift was the guy who won the first time, under the old rules. He did not know what winning was now.

Fulghum then told the class that they would play one more round. He would remove the last chair. When the music stopped, they would all sit down in a lap.

“How on earth can we do that?” they said. “You can find a way,” he replied.

One more time, they marched to the music and stopped. They looked at each other and started giving each other direction to stand in a perfect circle. “Step toward the middle to make a tighter circle.” “Place your hands on the hips of the person in front of you.” “On the count of three, slowly sit and guide the person in front of you onto your knees.” Ready. One. Two. Three. Sit. They all sat. No chair.

Fulghum presents this true story of how people face the problem of diminishing resources. Is it always to be a winners-losers world, or can we keep everyone in the game?

IDRA’s research on strategies for reducing the dropout rate, stemming from research-based effective strategies and IDRA’s experience in schools over the last 26 years, shows five components are vital to successful dropout prevention.

  • First, all students must be valued. Success will require that we value every single child. In fact, success will be measured by how we value every single child.
  • Second, there must be a support network in smaller schools with smaller class sizes where students are well known and where at least one educator in a student’s life is totally – and for the long haul – committed to the success of that student.
  • Third, families must be valued as partners with the school.
  • Fourth, schools must change and innovate, providing challenging curriculum to match the characteristics of their students and embracing the strengths and contributions that students and their families bring.
  • Fifth, school staff – especially teachers – must be highly qualified and equipped with the tools needed to ensure their students’ success, including the use of technology, different learning styles and mentoring programs. Effective professional development can help provide these tools.

We must also get rid of one important myth: the myth that equal opportunity exists. The truth, as researcher Linda Darling-Hammond has stated, is that “the U.S. educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world, and students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their social status. The wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. school districts spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest 10 percent. Yet despite differences in funding, teacher quality, curriculum, and class sizes, the prevailing view is that if students do not achieve, it is their own fault (1998).”

By understanding how the school environment contributes to a student’s failure, we can change what blocks success. What works are sound, effective and efficient educational strategies that encourage students to remain in school. There are many such strategies. Upward Bound, Communities In Schools, and the IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program use such strategies.

The IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program is dear to my heart. It is based on the creed that all students are valuable, none is expendable. This philosophy, that all students are valuable, is helping more than 200 schools keep 98 percent of Valued Youths in school, keeping these young people in the classroom and learning.

The idea is simple and may seem unusual at first glance. We work with schools to identify students who are considered to be in at-risk situations and place them as tutors of younger students.

Participating tutors have been the ones who traditionally receive help; never had they been asked to provide help. These were the “throwaways,” students who were not expected ever to graduate from high school. Yet, when given the appropriate structure, they can and do succeed.

In addition to the changes this program produces in young people, the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program succeeds because it subtly but powerfully challenges and ultimately changes people’s beliefs and behaviors.

One administrator recounted her first experience with the program. She knew Paul Hayes by his reputation as a student who “sent teachers into early retirement.”

She watched him get off the bus at the elementary school where he would be tutoring that day. She kept a vigilant eye on him as he entered the classroom and watched in amazement as he put on a hand puppet and began teaching three little ones.

What she saw in that classroom was “Mr. Hayes.” She saw Mr. Hayes’ students following his every word, and learning. And she heard the elementary teacher tell how she would be lost without Mr. Hayes in her classroom.

As she watched him get back on the bus that would take him to his middle school, she wondered if his middle school teachers would see the Mr. Hayes that was in him or would they only see Paul, the at-risk student?

The greatest “at-risk” circumstance students face may be the school’s low, and self-fulfilling, expectations.

A philosopher once said, “The actual proves the possible.” The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program works, as do other programs across the country. All students can and are succeeding in some schools. It can happen in every school.

Everyone Wins

After the launch of “Apollo 13,” NASA is faced with a dreadful problem. You may remember the movie telling of the story. Three astronauts are in space with a malfunctioning shuttle. It has been struck by something floating in space. There is not enough oxygen for them to breath. They do not have the tools they need to make the repairs for a problem they cannot even examine closely. It seems hopeless.

On the ground, hundreds of scientists are scratching their heads. They have been up for hours and cannot think of a workable solution. Everything they come up with brings with it a new set of problems. They start pointing fingers.

They are overwhelmed, sitting back wringing their hands. We cannot fix this. They are about to give up.

The mission director listened to the group’s list of difficulties. If only this, we could have done that. It’s hopeless. Then he emphatically reminded them, “Failure is not an option!”

Failure was not an option because it would mean losing the lives of the three men in the shuttle. It would mean breaking promises made to their families. Failure was not an option because the brain power was there to create a new solution by thinking about the problem differently. Failure was not an option.

The scientists were a little bruised at first. But seeing the situation in a new light they pulled together.

They relooked at the resources before them. Once discarded as useless for their traditional purposes, the resources were now seen as possibilities. The scientists became very creative. And they succeeded. The shuttle and the astronauts were brought home safely.

What we are here today to face is a problem with even more powerful implications. Many more than three people are affected. We have tried different things, some more successful than others. Yet the dropout rate continues to climb. Many people are overwhelmed, wringing their hands. There is a lot of finger-pointing. We cannot fix this. We cannot fix them.

Robert Fulghum changed only one rule in musical chairs: to keep all the kids in the game.

The only thing we have to change is our belief that some students deserve success and others do not. The new rule is: All students stay in. The new promise is: All students succeed. Failure is not an option.


Darling-Hammond, L. “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education,” Brookings Review (March 22, 1998).

Fulghum, R. Maybe (Maybe Not): Second Thoughts from a Secret Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993).

National Center for Education Statistics. Dropout Rates in the United States, 1995 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, July 1997).

Supik, J.D., and R.L. Johnson. Missing: Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

Supik, J.D. “The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program: An Idea that Works,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 1994).

María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the IDRA executive director. Dr. Robledo Montecel presented an adapted version of this article as a keynote at the National Dropout Prevention Network conference in December. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2000 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]