Nation Building and the Public School Dropout Crisis

I wonder why the news media pays so much attention to the regime change that the USA is sponsoring in Libya while virtually ignoring the real threat to our nation’s future: the dropout crisis in our public schools and what a lack of education and job opportunity means to a generation of young people.

Maybe it’s time for some nation building in the USA. I can’t take credit for that notion — or saying — but I can’t find now the original source. But as public schools begin to open throughout the country, consider these facts as reported by America’s Promise Alliance:

One in four public school children drop out before they finish high school. That’s 1.3 million students a year – one every 26 seconds, 7,000 every school day.

And as bad as those numbers are, the situation has actually been improving somewhat. Here’s from a November 2010 article in Time, “Dropout Rate Dropping, but Don’t Celebrate Yet“:

High school graduation rates are one of education’s perennial bad-news stories. How bad? In 2008, there were 1,746 “dropout factories,” high schools that graduate fewer than 60% of their students. But according to a new report released on Tuesday, there is finally some good news to talk about. First, the national graduation rate inched up from 72% in 2001 to 75% in 2008. There were 261 fewer dropout factories in 2008 than in 2002. And during that six-year period, 29 states improved their graduation rates, with two of them — Wisconsin and Vermont — reaching almost a 90% rate.

But don’t call in the cast of Glee just yet. According to the report, by Johns Hopkins University, along with two education-oriented groups, America’s Promise Alliance and Civic Enterprises, eight states had graduation rates below 70% in 2008, and 2.2 million students still attend dropout factories. An achievement gap also persists: only 64% of Hispanic students and 62% of African Americans graduated in 2008, while 81% of white students did. (See the top 10 college dropouts.)

These shortfalls carry enormous costs for students as well as for taxpayers. In today’s economy, dropouts have few options, a poor quality of life and almost no economic mobility. In 2009, the average person with a college degree earned about $1,015 a week, while the average high school dropout earned just $454. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is 5.2% for those with a college degree and 14.6% for dropouts. The Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., estimates that dropouts each year cost the nation more than $300 billion in lost income.

OK.  The dropout crisis. That’s one side of the issue. How about those who do graduate and move on to college? How well prepared are they? Here’s from an Akron Beacon Journal editorial, “Remediation 101“:

Something is seriously wrong when one third or more of incoming freshmen need to take remedial classes in English or math before they can proceed with their regular college courses. The growing need for remediation (an astounding 62 percent of first-year students at Youngstown State in 2009-10) underscores once more fundamental weaknesses in the state’s educational system.

The percentage of freshmen under age 20 who need remedial classes has risen three percentage points, to 39 percent, in five years. For older students, many of whom take on college work after years out of school years, the figure is a disheartening 46 percent. As reported Sunday by Carol Biliczsky, a Beacon Journal staff writer, for Ohio, the cost of bringing marginal students up to speed in 2007-08 was $189 million. A state pushing to stay competitive by increasing the percentage of college-educated citizens can hardly afford the inefficiency and wastefulness such figures represent.

Without question, much of the blame resides with the uneven quality of secondary education and a curriculum not closely aligned with the material and standard of performance expected in college.

It is expensive, financially and in time spent, when high schools fail to provide the necessary academic preparation, passing on the responsibility to colleges and universities. Taxpayers end up subsidizing not only secondary education but also a do-over in college at much higher cost. Students lacking basic math and language skills often do not graduate, or they take longer than four years to earn a diploma. Either way, they rack up large debts along the way.

The rub in all this, of course, is that employers are demanding a more educated workforce to compete in what in many ways is now a global knowledge-based economy.

Here’s from John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, opining on The Huffington Post, “America’s Job Surplus and the College Completion Crisis“:

How can it be that today, in the midst of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression and millions of Americans seeking work, that 53 percent of employers — and 67 percent of small business employers that create most new jobs — find it difficult to find qualified workers? How can a workforce desperate for new jobs appear so helpless amid so many businesses desperate to hire?

The answers to those questions lie at the heart of a new divide that has developed within the American economy. Over the last several decades, a chasm has emerged to divide the skills of the nation’s workforce, as they exist, and the demands of the nation’s job market. Today, America has only 45 million workers who have the training and skills to fill 97 million jobs that require some post-secondary education. U.S. companies have to choose among importing skilled workers, outsourcing jobs, or relocating operations in markets overseas with a rising supply of skilled and affordable workers. At the same time, the nation has more than 100 million candidates for only 61 million low-skill, low-wage positions. If America wants to remain competitive, we will have to expand our supply of high- and middle-skill workers.

Ah, good to see Mad Dog moving toward retirement in Libya. But if we are interested in nation building that really matters to the USA, we should start here with our schools and with a generation of young people who really are being left behind.



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