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.
ABOUT THE WRITER
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.