Education Reporter's Notebook

State Board Members Urged to Concentrate On Dropout Problem

By Jessica L. Tonn — October 24, 2006 4 min read
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For every 100 U.S. students who start high school, only 67 earn a diploma within four years. Of those, only 38 enter college, 26 are still enrolled after sophomore year, and just 18 graduate on time with either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree.

Those statistics, published by the Boulder, Colo.-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, were repeatedly mentioned by speakers at the National Association of State Boards of Education’s annual conference here in an effort to raise awareness among state-level policymakers.

“Dropouts are a symptom of a sick system,” Hank M. Bounds, the Mississippi state superintendent of education and one of the panelists at a session on the future of public education, told the 200 state school board members, other education policymakers, and corporate sponsors at the Oct. 12-14 conference.

Mr. Bounds urged state board members to launch a campaign to “build a sense of concern nationally” about the dropout problem and inform the public about the need to increase college- and workforce-readiness among high school students. He suggested that the campaign be modeled after the one used to warn the public about the health risks associated with smoking.

“First, you need to have a bold confrontation with the facts, and then you can see where you want to go,” he said.

Although some researchers disagree on how to calculate high school graduation data, many believe that no more than 70 percent of 9th graders earn a diploma within four years. (Diplomas Count,” June 22, 2006.)

One of the facts the public needs to confront is how well American students perform academically compared with students in other countries, added Gene Wilhoit, Kentucky’s education commissioner, who will leave his post next month to become the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Mr. Wilhoit pointed to statistics such as those mentioned earlier that day in a general-session speech by Ross DeVol, a director of regional economics at the Milken Institute, an economic think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif. Mr. DeVol cited results from the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, that the United States was ranked 28th in the world among industrialized nations in the mathematical achievement of its 15-year-olds.

States should adopt financial-literacy and investor education as a part of their K-12 standards, a new NASBE report says.

The report, released the week before the conference and presented to members here, is the work of the organization’s commission on financial and investor literacy, which convened in February.

Whether to teach the subject in individual courses or incorporate it into other academic areas is up to the states. But the commission recommends that financial literacy be included in standards and assessment systems throughout the K-12 grades.

According to the National Council on Economic Education’s annual “Survey of the States,” nine states currently have personal-finance course requirements as part of their graduation requirements, the NASBE report says.

The report also calls on states to develop a financial-literacy framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the federally sponsored testing program that tracks student achievement in reading, mathematics, science, and other key subjects.

In addition, the report highlights the importance of preparing teachers to teach financial-literacy concepts, such as spending and credit, saving and investing, and money management. Proper professional development for finance teachers is crucial, the report says, because “the majority of college graduates possess no more skills in personal-finance management than the students they are expected to teach.”

What lessons should state board members take from the decision late last year by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III that struck down the Dover, Pa., school district’s inclusion of “intelligent design” in science classes?

“Be careful who your friends are,” Dan Biles, the lawyer for the Kansas board of education, told members at a session on the impact of the Dover decision. The Kansas board has garnered much attention in the past seven years for its shifting position on whether the theory of evolution belongs in the state science standards.

In summing up the 139-page decision, Mr. Biles said that Judge Jones found the Dover school board’s policy on intelligent design to be unconstitutional because “the overwhelming evidence at trial established that [it] is a religious view.” (“Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

Mr. Biles went on to say that the decision invites courts to look for any religious intent behind board members’ actions. To establish religious intent, courts may examine whom board members seek advice from and what questions they ask when crafting controversial policies, he said.

“Keeping both sides [in debates about evolution] at arm’s length is difficult,” Mr. Biles said, “but if you don’t do it, you’ll have a very uncomfortable day in deposition.”

Teachers and school board members who are worried about litigation could focus on teaching about the ongoing controversy rather than focusing on specific supposed alternatives to evolutionary theory, such as intelligent design, said Mark Van Zandt, the general counsel for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“It has created enough dust, that just teaching the controversy may be enough,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of Education Week

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