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NPR logo The Class of 2011: More of the Same?

The Class of 2011: More of the Same?


Our online series, "Speak Your Mind," gives you, our listeners and readers, a chance to sound off on the issues you care about.

With schools set to reopen in a few weeks, this latest installment about the country's failing education system comes from "News & Views" reader James Swain.

Read and respond.

Courtesy James Swain

When you consider our wealth as a nation, the sorry state of basic education in large sectors of our society is inexcusable. It is a disgrace that for all of our scientific advances, our business acumen and our claim to a common ethos that truly values education and learning, we can't do what it takes to make sure that all of our children successfully graduate from high school. Is the goal of an educated population out of reach for America? No, of course it isn't. We know enough to meet this challenge, but we need to act, and demand that our leaders act, with a sense of urgency.

According to a recent article by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, 15 percent — or about 2,000 — of the rural and urban public high schools in America are responsible for over 50 percent of the nation's dropouts. Other data tells us that we lose almost half (40 to 50 percent) of the kids who are not going to graduate high school, in the ninth grade. These studies point to various associational risk factors. There's the predictable linear relationship between failing schools and poor communities; the lack of adequate preparation for high school in the lower grades and; most poignantly, the fact that 40 percent of those lost in the ninth grade were left back, at least once, in earlier grades.

We don't need to recount the high statistical associations with negative outcomes (especially incarceration and continued generational poverty) awaiting adults with no high school diploma. We know all too well that a high school diploma is an indispensable prerequisite to successful, independent adulthood.

But this knowledge begs the question. Is anyone responsible for solving this problem? Is anyone accountable for the shameful failure of these schools? Is anyone out there up to the challenge of ending this blight? How much could such an effort cost? How much would it be worth if it succeeded? Is it more than the price we are paying for our continued failure?

I know, I know: politicians and government leaders can't solve the problem alone; throwing money at the problem won't solve it; you have to start earlier than ninth grade if you want to make a difference; it starts in the home; parents need to step up to the plate; the children have to want to learn; we need to resolve the high stakes testing dilemma first; we need to forget about public schools and go private or charter or voucher; we need to change how we fund public education; it's the media; it's the unions; it's the politicians; it's the bureaucracy ... and on and on and on.

For years, the constituencies for and against these ideas have battled it out on talk radio shows and in the legislatures, on school boards and in administrative agencies, in think tanks and at universities, and elsewhere all over the country — to the point that these battling mantras have become nothing more than excuses for our inaction.

One thing is certain, the longer we wait to end this disgrace, the more children we will lose. As we speak, the class of 2011 is entering the ninth grade in some 2,000 troubled high schools across the country. If we continue to do nothing, the odds are that less than half these children will graduate. — James Swain

(Cited article: Closing "Dropout Factories" (Balfanz & Legters) Education Week, July 12, 2006)

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