Competitive Drop


Groups Embark on Campaign To Get Americans to Graduate

The United States is in the midst of a crisis, and it’s not playing out in a battleground overseas. According to a growing number of advocates, one of the greatest battles of our time is one that’s taking place on American soil, in each of the nation’s 50 states, in every local community. It is, simply, getting students to graduate. One in three of all children attending school in this country fail to graduate high school on time. Of those who do, just a third of them have developed the skills they need to succeed in college or the workforce. In fact, according to the D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education, nationwide, only about 70 percent of students earn their high school diplomas. That may have passed muster decades ago when basic manufacturing jobs were plentiful, but in today’s increasingly sophisticated, globalized workforce, America’s dropout rate won’t cut it. Alliance for Excellent Education warns that if this annual pattern is allowed to continue, more than 12 million students will drop out of school during the next decade at a cost to the nation of more than trillion in lost wages over these students’ lifetimes. Moreover, U.S. graduation rates have been falling steadily, while those of other developed countries have been increasing over the past decade. Thirty years ago, America was the world leader in the quantity and quality of both high school and college graduates. No more. Countries such as Finland, South Korea, India and China all outperform U.S. students in nearly almost every education indicator. According to mid-decade calculations by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. graduation rate of 76 percent is behind the international average of 82 percent, and well below the graduation rates in Greece, Germany, Finland, Japan, South Korea, Norway and Ireland, all of which are graduating more than 90 percent of their high school students. China and India, in fact, produce four times as many high school grads as the United States, according to the documentary “2 Million Minutes,” which argues that foreign cultures place a far higher value on science, technology, math and education in general than the United States does. The state of American education remains the subject of contentious debate, as witnessed by the teacher reform movement that thrust D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee into the national spotlight, and the intense dialogue being sparked by Davis Guggenheim’s hit documentary “Waiting for Superman.” President Obama has also made boosting the country’s educational competitiveness a signature issue, with initiatives such as the recent summit on community colleges and the Race to the Top Fund that rewards billions of dollars to spur innovation and reform to close the achievement gap. Regardless of where one stands on this complex debate, it’s clear America is lagging behind on the education front while much of the world is making strides forward. According to the most recent numbers from OECD, U.S. students scored at or below the international average for reading, math and science skills. Half of all American students also fell below the threshold of problem-solving skills that the international organization considers essential for meeting today’s workforce demands. Some advocates say America’s sinking education rankings are more a reflection of advancements taking place in other countries than they are an indication of a worsening U.S. education system. Overall, student performance in the United States (as measured by test scores) has remained steady, while students in other countries have been gaining higher and higher levels of achievement. But that belies the fact that the numbers have been steadily low — and that other countries are clearly ahead in the education race, which could prove critical to the next generation of American workers. Among the myriad groups working to reverse this trend is America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of more than 400 corporations, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and advocacy groups headquartered in Washington, D.C. The organization works at both the grassroots and national levels, with a core focus on what it calls the “Five Promises,” or the essentials every child needs to succeed: caring adults and mentors; places where they are physically and emotionally safe; healthy starts and access to proper health care; effective education; and opportunities to help others. The group has embarked on a 10-year “Grad Nation” campaign to mobilize communities around the country to reverse what it calls the “dropout crisis.” “The bottom line is that we all feel the impact of the dropout rate in this country,” said Colleen Wilber, a spokeswoman for America’s Promise Alliance. “We all feel the impact of millions of our young people — the next generation of the nation’s workforce and leaders — not being prepared to compete globally. The dropout crisis in this country is as much an economic issue as a moral and educational one.” The organization, launched in 1997 with Gen. Colin Powell as its founding chairman, has been steadily growing its menu of resources and programs to support America’s communities and their school districts. Most are aimed at eliminating demographic and economic disparities — two factors that advocates cite as the biggest contributors to the nation’s high number of dropouts. To that end, American graduation rates, when broken down further, are most dire for minorities and low-income families. More than half of the country’s dropouts come from these two demographic groups. When it comes to test scores measured by OECD, the United States is the only country that experiences significant achievement gaps, with the number of American students attaining the highest scores possible similar to those in other countries, while those at the lowest level greatly underperform than their counterparts in other nations. The causes of these discrepancies (issues like unsafe neighborhoods in which schoolwork takes a backseat to self-preservation, as well as poverty that forces teens to prioritize childcare and work over studying) have been the subject of endless Hollywood films and political rhetoric. And community officials throughout the country are as accustomed to the achievement gap debate as teachers are to hearing about the need for classroom reform. But while the dropout crisis in this country “remains dire,” Wilber says there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful. “This hope is really exemplified by our 100 Best Communities for Young People,” she said. “Here you have communities of all sizes and locations coming together … to make youth a priority.” In September, America’s Promise Alliance launched its fifth annual list of America’s Best 100 Communities for Young People as part of its Grad Nation campaign. Wilber pointed to initiatives like one in Abington, Pa., where a local fundraiser brought in 0,000 to help save local youth programs, and in Omaha, Neb., where school-based health centers provide medical and mental health services to more than 35,000 students and their siblings in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Four Washington area communities were named in this year’s “best” list: Alexandria and Prince William County in Virginia, and Maryland’s Wicomico County and Calvert County. One community that’s been noticeably absent from the list is the nation’s capital. In the District of Columbia, 59.5 percent of students graduated in 2007, nine percent less than the national average and 14.5 percent below the number of graduates in Maryland, according to the latest statistics provided by the publication Education Week. D.C. is hardly alone. According to America’s Promise Alliance, “barely half of all students graduate on time in the largest public school districts” of the 50 largest U.S. cities. Those numbers are likely behind the decision by a large number of affluent D.C. residents, including most of the area’s diplomats and expatriates, to spend large sums of money to send their children to the area’s many private schools. Still, America’s Promise Alliance says that even these parents, as well as those living in communities with outstanding public schools systems, can play a crucial role in reversing the dropout crisis by supporting local schools and the programs designed to help them. Something as simple as a few hours spent mentoring a young child or volunteering at an after-school program for underprivileged youth can make a big difference, the alliance stresses. “This is what the alliance’s Grad Nation initiative is about — getting all Americans to see their role in reducing the dropout rate and making sure our young people are succeeding,” Wilber said. “Big and small efforts at the local, state and national level … can make a difference in the lives of a child or a community and, eventually, a nation.” Grad Nation is one of several campaigns launched by the organization in recent years. Others include a series of dropout prevention summits and extra resources for a group of 12 “featured communities” (including D.C.) that have been deemed to face the greatest challenges to — as well as the biggest opportunities for — educational change. “Each year, dropouts cost our economy around 0 billion in lost income, productivity and purchasing power,” Wilbur said. “In such a hyper-connected global economy, we cannot expect to remain number one in the world when our students rank far behind other developed countries in literacy, math and science. If our next generation of leaders, our future workforce, is woefully underprepared for the demands of the 21st-century economy, our nation will not have a strong future.”

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.