Education system needs work to stop dropouts
Everyone recognizes the need for great improvement in K-12 education in the United States. Study after study shows that we no longer lead the world but have fallen behind the achievements of the public schools in countries from Finland and Korea. In addition to worrying about the standards in America’s schools, we also face the massive problem of youth dropping out of high school.
Folks my age remember that someone with a high school diploma and no further formal education could find a job, perhaps starting out as an apprentice, and have a career with a middle class income, health care, and a pension. Today many with college degrees fail to find a job that places them securely in the middle class. If that is the case, what is the fate of those with no education beyond high school, let alone those who fail to complete high school? Assuming they cannot sack quarterbacks or invent some gizmo that Apple buys, high school dropouts have virtually no chance of living a middle class existence.
With dropout rates in many urban areas reaching 50 percent, it is not hard to imagine that for the next several generations, those cities will be populated with thousands of people who have no means to earn a living, be economically independent and pay taxes. We already see outrageous rates of incarceration for young male dropouts. Imagine that amount of food stamps and housing subsidies and Medicaid payments necessary to provide a minimum of care for these folks.
And what happens when they reach their later years? Keep in mind that in order to draw any Social Security, a person must work and pay FICA for a total of 10 years. Many of us hit that benchmark when we were in our 30s and a few while still in their 20s. However, imagine how many of those dropouts of today will need subsidies and Medicare and Medicaid when they are 70. And they may need such support for 20 years or more.
We hear the word “sustainable” thrown around a lot today by politicians and pundits, but let me suggest that lifelong support for those high school dropouts of today is not sustainable. Think of what it costs all of us to incarcerate young felons for several years; it would cost less to send them to a state university!
Clearly, keeping young folks in school and out of jail and delaying parenthood are important goals. Does anyone think that the test-taking mania of No Child Left Behind will help to overcome this problem. Please!
There are no magic bullets, and this is evident in watching the ongoing search in Rochester to find an answer to the dropout problem. The Wegman family has committed itself to programs of mentorship and employment for at-risk youth, but the results have been disappointing. I think we have to assume there is goodwill among teachers and administrators, but clearly goodwill alone is insufficient.
We know that any long-term solution will require a rebuilding of many inner cities and small towns. Pro-family policies are crucial, for kids with two parents living together have a much better chance of staying in school and advancing in life. We should focus on pre-school programs and on full day kindergarten in areas of great poverty and rare intact families.
We need to lengthen the school year not just because teachers need more class time but because so many kids spend the summers unstimulated, losing some of what they learned the previous year.
We must have good teachers. We have to prepare them better than we now do at our universities, and school districts need to seek out the best and not someone who can maybe be all right in the classroom but can also coach junior varsity soccer or varsity swimming. Such factors in hiring teachers are alive and well all over our nation — even in Livingston County.
To afford some of these things, we need to rethink budgets so we get our money’s worth in education. My guess is that a little more money and a lot more disciplined ways of spending it is a winning formula. We need public-private partnerships such as we see with the Wegmans in Rochester; and our public universities, including SUNY Geneseo, should be much more involved in boosting the quality of education in the public schools that surround it. I have talked to several millionaires who choose to support private schools because they do not trust public school administrators or teachers to use funds effectively. Administrators and teachers need to get their acts together and attract private sponsorship of educational programs, not just scoreboards in gyms.
I want to add one element that is often not included in the “to-do” lists for public schools: Have a stimulating and well taught and rigorous curriculum. Do not dumb down the lessons. Read Shakespeare without a modern “translation.” Do hard science. Learn history and not just a date or two. Teach every student a foreign language beginning at an early age.
One result of dumbing down a curriculum is that the brightest ones are bored and thus more likely to drop out than they would be if they were engaged with serious learning. I have lectured on “Dante’s Divine Comedy” at Harvard but also taught Dante to grade-school kids. These are two different but equally possible and valuable activities.
There are no quick fixes and no silver bullets. There is a lot of work to do in a lot of settings if we are to create an educated populace. If the hole we are in gets any deeper, we may find ourselves on the opposite side of our planet!