Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), “Real Change in Education”

Posted on April 4, 2008

There is much talk about change. I know one opportunity for real change that would affect nearly 7,000 young Americans every school day – five students every minute. Gang violence? Drugs? Nope, neither of these. This is less flashy, but as serious. It is the persistently high number of high school dropouts. Twenty-five years ago, the landmark federal report “A Nation at Risk” said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” In response the nation’s governors and President George H.W. Bush set national goals, one of which was that the graduation rate would rise to at least 90 percent by the year 2000. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national graduation rate was only 68 percent in 2006. There has been plenty of effort and some gains. Fourth graders nationwide recently scored higher than ever in reading, while both fourth and eighth grade students achieved record high math scores. Yet in 2006, among minority students, only 58 percent of Hispanic and 53 percent of African American students graduate with a regular diploma, compared to 76 percent of white students and 80 percent of Asian Americans. When students drop out they lose, employers lose, society loses and democracy suffers. These students are more likely to go to prison, to rely on public programs and to go without health insurance. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that dropouts from the class of 2006-2007 alone will cost our nation more than $329 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity over their lifetimes. A recent landmark report by the National Academies called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” warns that Americans may be losing the brainpower advantage that has permitted us year in and year out to produce about 30 percent of the world’s wealth for just 5 percent of the world’s people. China, India and other countries know that better schools, better colleges and research mean better jobs and are determined to catch up. In response, Congress enacted the America COMPETES Act of 2007 to increase funding for science agencies, training for more math and science teachers and supporting more research. States are remodeling high schools, such as North Carolina’s work with the Gates Foundation to create an academically rigorous curriculum. Mayors, like Nashville’s Karl Dean, are holding dropout prevention summits. Also pitching in is America’s Promise – the movement founded by Alma and Colin Powell and supported by four U.S. Presidents. Instead of relying on Washington wisdom, America’s Promise will organize one hundred community summits to find ways to change low graduation rates. After 30 years of fighting for and watching education reform, I wave one yellow flag of caution: let’s hope the talk at these summits will not be stuck in the same old educational ruts, but instead will be open to real change – such as offering high school juniors and seniors more options to enroll in college courses, giving low income students more of the same choices of so called good schools that wealthy kids already have; giving all students more choices so they fit their school; measuring good teaching and finding fair ways to pay the best teachers a lot more; turning high schools as we now know them inside out so that they actually attract students; finding more ways to connect work and school so young people know the real world; and pushing standards higher so American graduates can compete in the world marketplace – and, yes, putting money behind real changes when they earn it. These are the real, hard changes that will help more of our youngsters realize America’s promise. ###