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College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Tune In, Turn On, Graduate

By Harris N. Miller — December 19, 2008 4 min read

America is now the only country in the industrialized world where young people are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were, according to a new study by the nonpartisan Education Trust. Two numbers illustrate this serious challenge.

25 percent: That is the alarmingly large number of American high school students who quit before earning their diplomas.

50 percent: That is the extraordinary number of minority students in the United States who do not finish high school on schedule. Even schools with otherwise commendable overall graduation rates can camouflage the poor graduation rates of minority or special-needs students.

Amid the bursting of the housing bubble that precipitated a global financial meltdown, the nation’s two ongoing wars, and the fierce race for the U.S. presidency that recently concluded, the issue of improving education in America—and specifically of lowering dropout rates—has received scant attention.

In the short time in office she has left, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings would like to change that. During her tenure, Secretary Spellings has brought a renewed emphasis on accountability in education. This year, she issued new regulations on how schools calculate and report their graduation rates. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states are now required to track students from the moment they enter high school until they earn their diplomas. Previously, they were calculating graduation rates under disparate methods. There was neither accountability within each system nor continuity of procedures across state lines. States could count as graduates students who dropped out and later earned their General Educational Development credentials. They also could exclude students who left school before graduating and only count seniors who started at the beginning of the academic year. The numbers hid more than they disclosed.

With the possibility of NCLB’s provisions extending from elementary and middle schools into high schools, states would not only be required to set achievable goals with proof of progress, but also to report the success of their efforts by publishing their schools’ graduation rates for the public’s review.

The problems facing America and its schools cannot be solved solely by providing more-accurate reporting of discouraging numbers.

There is some debate within the education community about the potential effectiveness of Spellings’ new measures. But virtually no one denies the importance of accountability for schools, and for young people set to become the next generation of America’s workforce. When high school students graduate still in need of a remedial education, everyone is hurt. When they drop out, matters become even more dire.

While we should applaud Secretary Spellings for instituting these new requirements, and for embracing transparency, the question lingers as to why such reporting measures are needed in the first place. Why are U.S. high school students not more engaged in their courses of study? The answer, I believe, is relevance.

As “The Silent Epidemic,” a report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, showed, while there is no single cause for students’ dropping out, boredom and disengagement and the coursework’s perceived lack of relevance to their futures are major contributing factors. The traditional academic diet may work for a large percentage of students, but it is clearly leaving out an entire segment of the population that needs a more applied course of study to obtain value-added skills and gainful employment. With America’s disappearing manufacturing base, with its high-wage manufacturing jobs, education that prepares people for the new employment opportunities of the 21st century is more important than ever.

Rather than focusing on purely academic preparation for postsecondary education, or offering ad hoc vocational opportunities to a limited few, what is required is a more immersive, career-focused education whose relevance speaks to the desires and needs of low-income and working-class students. A more balanced approach would refashion the high school educational experience into a relevant, helpful necessity, rather than a tiresome liability. In such a realm, emphasis could shift from calculating dropout rates to estimating productivity benefits to people, employers, and the economy.

Extending accountability to high school is laudable, but the problems facing America and its schools cannot be solved solely by providing more-accurate reporting of discouraging numbers. The powerful involvement of the community—including employers, community colleges, career colleges, parents, economic-development officials, and other stakeholders—is what is required. The leadership shown by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in focusing on career and technical education in his city’s schools needs to be copied across the land.

Employers can work with schools to offer students opportunities to experience the rigors and demands of working life while maintaining their studies. Community colleges, career colleges, and vocationally oriented traditional colleges can facilitate the transition to postsecondary education for students eager to get the skills necessary for a job. They can work toward developing seamless articulation agreements, or collaborate to create engaging programs around vocational education that use college-level resources to enhance the learning experience for students still at the secondary level.

Secretary Spellings has given us an important first step in the right direction. The second step must be for all parties to work together in public-private partnerships to make high school education meaningful again. Nothing less than the future of the country and our economy depends on it.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Tune In, Turn On, Graduate


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