Why our schools are failing our children

I heard that cold truth again this week. It was reiterated by a former teacher. Not one of mine, but a woman who had worked with enough students in her decades of secondary school teaching to make the claim with some authority.

I’ll concede the point and up the ante. Not everyone is high school material, either – at least, as high schools are currently constituted.

Sounds demeaning, right? It’s a tad impolite to say in public that large swaths of the general population just don’t have the chops to earn even a high school degree. But if graduation rates are used as the measure of high school success, the evidence is mounting.

Nearly one-third of all students fail to earn a high school diploma in the typical four-year period. And graduation rates are significantly lower among poorer black and Latino students. Less than half of all black students and less than 60 percent of Latinos earn a regular high school diploma.

To some, this might confirm the “Bell Curve” explanation – i.e., that the problem is a racial or class pathology. Before we head down that ugly path of blaming, consider this:

The dirty little secret is that we don’t know for sure how many students are dropping out of school, because the numbers can be massaged and fudged by educational authorities. New legislation is pending that would standardize how graduation rates are reported, which is necessary for establishing credible standards. Coupled with changes ordered by the Department of Education last fall, states will be doing a far better job at calculating the data. But be prepared: The new standards may reveal the dropout situation to be worse than we thought.

An inordinate amount of political will is being exerted to grade a school system that is obviously failing too many students, with the grand hope that scrutiny will yield vastly different results. Instead of concluding that the dropout rates are a result of socioeconomic disparities and that these kids are unable to acquire skills and a useful education, maybe it’s time to ask whether the some of the problem is in how high schools are structured. Maybe the answer is different models for secondary instruction, including more options that move youth faster into either traditional four-year college, online courses or training programs – whatever fits for their abilities and goals.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The main purpose of providing free public education is to strengthen the nation, preparing today’s high school grad to become a productive citizen. Yes, it would be nice if every graduate were able to relish a good novel, but we all need to enjoy the economic value they add in taxes, productivity.

By one estimate, the dropouts of 2008 alone will cost the nation more than $319 billion in lost wages throughout their lifetimes.

What’s at stake here is nothing less than the future prosperity of this nation. The graduation rate has remained fairly static at about 70 percent for decades, according to U.S. Department of Education. In other words, the failure of our education model has been apparent for a long time, yet nothing we’ve tried has had any appreciable success at fixing the problem.

I’ve always been bothered when people casually remark that “not everyone is college material.” I just can’t shake the suspicion that some kids initially get plopped into that category not by their own lack of merit, but rather by the low expectations for how far they will climb up the educational ladder. Self-fulfilling prophecy usually handles the rest.

But to extend the philosophy of “not everyone is…” to the high school level? Well, I’m not willing to go that far. No one should. If our high schools are failing to reach one-third or more of the nation’s youth in a meaningful way, we owe it to our youth to ask how our schools are failing them.


Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.


2 thoughts on “Why our schools are failing our children

  1. I can’t agree with you more. If you are concerned about the statement about “college material”, imagine how upsetting it is for an experienced elementary principal new to a school in which 60% of the children are reading below grade level to hear, “I don’t believe those kids can learn to read at grade level.” This is not an inner city school (not that it would matter). I think that the view that some kids “have got it” and others don’t is pervasive in places where teachers do not own up to their responsibility for making sure kids do learn.

    The problem of failing high school students often starts in grade school. Yet trying to get teachers to understand and do something about it is one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever had. I have been demonized by a group who have been isolated in their classrooms and like to teach what they want. They think that because they are supposedly challenging their top kids that is enough. They reject school reform outright.

    Part of the problem with school reform is that is is not as easily accessible or as widely promoted as it could be. There are those that tell us that we can teach 100% of our children to read. With that truth, shouldn’t every school have that information and the resources to achieve it available to them? I am appalled that information about what works in schools is often kept to those who can afford to buy that information.

    All that said, I am committed to changing the future for the kids at my school no matter the cost for me personally. You are right,the future prosperity of our nation is at stake and we cannot risk even one child not reaching his or her potential.

  2. I applaud you for all that you do!

    I currently work with all students in the computer lab. In the lab, I am able to teach microsoft word, excel, power point and movie maker. 6th Grade- 8th Grade students work on addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, geometry and now algebra – specificially polynomials. There are some educators who feel that all students can’t learn, I say that they can..everyone won’t receive 100% everyday but they will learn. Each time they come to the lab, the students do a little better. I have only suspended one student so far since September. I look for websites that are educational, fun and exciting and did I mention that children LOVE their names on the wall.

    I tell all of my students that I want them to sit in that 9th grade algebra class and NOT be intimidated and that is why I work with ALL students on the same concepts. This also helps when it comes to peer tutoring…

    Just like you I have educators that don’t want to try out methods or strategies that might work with the children that are difficult or challenging. They just want to do what they do in their rooms.. I empathize with you totally.

    Thanks for the response….

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