Ur­ban dropout epi­demic

The Washington Times Weekly - - COMMENTARY - Don­ald Lam­bro

Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Mar­garet Spellings called two weeks ago for com­bat­ing Amer­ica’s “silent epi­demic,” a high-school dropout rate of cri­sis pro­por­tions.

We have long known about the prob­lem, but the num­bers are still just as shock­ing as ever — more so now be­cause of new data show­ing the real dropout rates have been masked by vary­ing def­i­ni­tions of what con­sti­tutes a dropout.

In 1963, Pres­i­dent Kennedy ad­dressed the prob­lem when 4 in 10 fifth-graders did not fin­ish high school.

“Forty-four years later, the dropout rate for African-Amer­i­can, His­panic and Na­tive Amer­i­can stu­dents ap­proaches 50 per­cent. We are wast­ing not just lives but time,” Mrs. Spellings said in an ad­dress to the Na­tional Sum­mit on Amer­ica’s Silent Epi­demic, where she and first lady Laura Bush, a for­mer teacher and ed­u­ca­tors from around the coun­try met to dis­cuss ways to cure a crit­i­cal ill­ness at the core of Amer­ica’s school sys­tem.

“De­spite our best ef­forts, there are still vast in­equities within our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem,” Mrs. Spellings said. “In too many of our cities, the re­al­ity faced by mi­nor­ity and low-in­come kids is shock­ing. [. . .] 15 per­cent of our high schools pro­duce more than half of our dropouts.”

Na­tion­ally, more kids are grad­u­at­ing than ever, but the story is very dif­fer­ent in ur­ban, in­ner-city school dis­tricts where pub­lic schools sorely lack ed­u­ca­tional lead­er­ship, re­sources and the po­lit­i­cal will to over­come a very solv­able prob­lem.

In th­ese schools, which Mrs. Spellings says are more ap­pro­pri­ately called “dropout fac­to­ries,” a ma­jor­ity of the stu­dents are mi­nori­ties, and their high-school ex­pe­ri­ence looks vastly dif­fer­ent from what most kids en­counter.

“They go to schools where trash lit­ters the floors, where graf­fiti dec­o­rates the walls [. . .] where most fresh­men en­ter un­able to read or do math at an eighth-grade level and where grad­u­a­tion is a 50/50 shot, or worse,” she said. As a re­sult, each year nearly 1 mil­lion high­school stu­dents do not grad­u­ate and thus be­come vir­tu­ally un­em­ploy­able in a knowl­edge-based econ­omy where even many fac­tory jobs re­quire skills in science, math and tech­nol­ogy.

This so­cial epi­demic’s deep­en­ing di­men­sions have fes­tered in the shad­ows for so long be­cause, in many school dis­tricts, such dropouts are counted “only if he or she reg­is­tered as one.” In other dis­tricts, dropouts are listed un­der “grad­u­ate” sta­tus if they prom­ise to get a diploma at a fu­ture time.

But now a new on­line data­base show­ing grad­u­a­tion rates in school dis­tricts across the coun­try will give par­ents the tools to find out how their own com­mu­ni­ties mea­sure up. No­tably, the data pro­duced by the trade jour­nal Ed­u­ca­tion Week show grad­u­a­tion rates lower than pre­vi­ously re­ported in most states.

How can we turn this tragic sit­u­a­tion around? Giv­ing par­ents data about their schools may help in some ar­eas, but mi­nori­ties in the poor­est school dis­tricts may lack ac­cess to such data and, in most cases, may not need it to tell them about a dropout rate they may be all too familiar with.

Mrs. Spellings pro­poses Ti­tle I spend­ing in Pres­i­dent Bush’s No Child Left Be­hind reau­tho­riza­tion be in­creased an­other $1 bil­lion “to im­prove and strengthen our pub­lic high schools serv­ing low-in­come stu­dents.”

There are le­git­i­mate rea­sons to doubt whether more fed­eral fund­ing will re­verse the dropout rate. We’ve been in­creas­ing fed­eral aid-to-ed­u­ca­tion bud­gets for decades now by huge amounts, with lit­tle im­prove­ment in our SAT scores. This prob­lem ul­ti­mately will be solved within the states, com­mu­ni­ties and the four walls of our class­rooms, by out- side-the-box think­ing about how schools are run, and teach­ers are hired and how to pro­vide in­cen­tives for stu­dents to stay in school.

We need to end the pro­hi­bi­tion against hir­ing non-ed­u­ca­tion-de­gree al­ter­na­tive teach­ers. Mrs. Spellings called for cre­at­ing an Ad­junct Teacher Corps to bring math and science pro­fes­sion­als into the class­room. It’s a good idea. There are great num­bers among the soon-to-re­tire Baby Boom gen­er­a­tion in many aca­demic fields who can bring a new and chal­leng­ing en­thu­si­asm and dis­ci­pline into our schools.

We need to en­cour­age school­choice pro­grams that al­low par­ents to move their kids out of fail­ing, high-dropout-rate schools into bet­ter pub­lic, private and parochial schools of their choice. Wis­con­sin pi­o­neered the school­choice move­ment with great suc­cess. It needs to be copied around the coun­try.

Rather than pour more money into fail­ing schools, why not pro­vide tax-sub­sidy in­cen­tives for ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions to es­tab­lish tech­nol­ogy and science high schools within in­ner cities to ed­u­cate and train the work­ers they need to re­main com­pet­i­tive in the global econ­omy?

Mi­crosoft, IBM and hun­dreds of other U.S. cor­po­ra­tions say they can­not fill thou­sands of job open­ings be­cause of a lack of skills in math, science and com­puter pro­gram­ming.

Such com­pa­nies would bring the same in­no­va­tion and ex­cel­lence to ed­u­ca­tion they have brought to the mar­ket­place. I have a feel­ing the first Mi­crosoft High School of Science and Tech­nol­ogy in, say, the South Bronx, would have few if any dropouts. How about it, Bill Gates?

Don­ald Lam­bro, chief po­lit­i­cal correspondent of The Wash­ing­ton Times, is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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