Stop the presses! Within just a few days we’ve had a scandal involving a world-class presidential guru bumped off the front pages by a prime-time presidential announcement of a nominee to the Supreme Court.
No one would argue that these aren’t big stories. But an issue that is even more important to the long-term future of the U.S. gets very short shrift from the media. In an era when a college education is virtually a prerequisite for maintaining a middle-class lifestyle, an extraordinary number of American teenagers continue to head toward adulthood without even a high school diploma.
This is not a sexy issue, and certainly not as titillating for journalists as the political witchcraft that Karl Rove has used to enchant George W. Bush. But consider the following from the book “Dropouts in America: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis,” a collection of essays edited by Gary Orfield, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education:
“Nationally, only about two-thirds of all students – and only half of all blacks, Latinos and Native Americans – who enter ninth grade graduate with regular diplomas four years later.”
In much of the nation, especially in urban and rural areas, the picture is even more dismal. In New York City, just 18 percent of all students graduate with a Regents diploma, which is the diploma generally required for admission to a four-year college. Only 9.4 percent of African-American students get a Regents diploma.
Overall, the United States has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world, which can’t be comforting news in the ferociously competitive environment of an increasingly globalized economy.
“It’s terrifying to know that half of the kids of color in the United States drop out of high school, and that only 1 in 5 is prepared for college,” said Tom Vander Ark of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is making a big effort to boost high school graduation rates and the number of graduates who are prepared for college.
Why is the education of America’s young people so important?
“It may sound like hyperbole,” said Vander Ark, “but this is the economic development issue for our society, and it is the social justice issue of our times. It is the most important long-term issue for the civic health of the republic.
“In the aggregate, we need more young people educated at higher levels: more finishing high school, more finishing community college, more finishing four-year degrees. And secondly, I think it’s very important that we close the racial and socioeconomic gaps in educational attainment.
“We’re seeing a scary level of income stratification that is the result of educational stratification. And it’s becoming important not just for the economy but for our society that we help low-income [students], and especially kids of color, achieve high levels of education so that they can participate in the economy and in our society.”
Citing statistics from a variety of sources, officials at the Gates Foundation have noted that:
– High school dropouts, on average, earn $9,245 less per year than high school graduates.
– The poverty rate for families headed by dropouts is more than twice that for families headed by high school graduates.
– Dropouts are much more likely to be unemployed, less likely to vote and more likely to be imprisoned than high school graduates.
For those concerned about the state of leadership in America, and who wonder where the next generation of leaders will come from, I can tell you it’s not likely to emerge from the millions upon millions of dropouts we’re setting loose in the land.
And whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, if you’d like to see a wiser, more creative and more effective approach to such crucial problems as war and peace, terror, international relations, employment, energy consumption and so on, you’ll need to rely on a much better-educated and better-informed population than the United States has now.I don’t think Vander Ark was engaging in hyperbole. The public needs to understand the extent of the high school dropout crisis, and its implications for the long-term future of the United States. It will most likely have more of an impact on the lives of your children and grandchildren than George W. Bush’s appointments to the Supreme Court.