During the 2008 election there was much discussion of what it means to be an intellectual in today’s society. President Barack Obama, a graduate of Columbia and Harvard and a law professor at University of Chicago, was often derisively referred to as an elitist. According to his opponents, Obama was too well-educated to accurately represent the interests of “real Americans.”
Perhaps it is this anti-intellectualism which has led to the dramatic decline in our country’s education system. Or maybe it’s just indifference on the part of education officials, an unwillingness to confront a problem that is right before their eyes. Either way, the fact is that education has been woefully mismanaged in recent years, and becoming an intellectual in America has gotten a lot more difficult.
In the past half century, the U.S. has fallen from first place in education worldwide to 18th out of 36 developed countries. Of these 36, we are the only country in which teenagers have a smaller chance of graduating from high school than their parents. Only 70 percent of Americans earn a high school diploma every year. In cities, the number decreases to 50 percent, and the graduation rate for minorities is a mere 33 percent. These numbers are alarming, especially considering the fact that according to America’s Promise Alliance website, close to 80 percent of jobs in the United States today require not only a high school diploma, but a college degree.
Not only do school systems tolerate dropouts, but in some cases they even encourage them. According to a Public Advocate report released on April 30, 2009, the Department of Education (DOE) has been sued numerous times for pushing students who seem unlikely to graduate out of schools in an effort to raise test scores and graduation rates. These students are classified as “discharged,” rather than dropouts.
In New York City, the number of discharges has jumped from 17 to 22 percent of all students, and most of these discharges are underperforming minorities and special education students-people more likely to bring down the city’s statistics. And because of the DOE’s questionable methodology-students who are expelled, voluntarily withdraw due to pregnancy, or leave school at the age of 21 without a diploma are all counted as discharges-many of these discharges should arguably be included as dropouts. Instead, the city hides them in the discharge category to make dropout rates seem lower.
The DOE disputes this argument, arguing that the percent of discharges has remained flat during the past six years and that only two percent of the students categorized as discharges under the NYC system would be considered dropouts under the national system-hardly enough to have a significant impact on the city’s overall statistics. But the DOE offers no explanation as to why the report has such different statistics.
Stuyvesant students may wonder what this has to do with them. We don’t need to worry about being pushed out of school because it looks like we’re not going to pass the Regents. Our graduation rate is nearly 99 percent. Why does it matter if dropouts in other schools aren’t being counted?
But when a school system sees that 30 out of every 100 students aren’t graduating and tries to find a way to hide that instead of finding a way to fix the situation, isn’t that a kind of surrender? Isn’t that saying that the 30 students who fail aren’t worth the effort it would take to help them?
Students should be concerned when the success of our education becomes less important than the appearance of success. We need to be concerned because we are students also.
So we can’t afford to hide from the startling realities of our education system. We must require greater accountability and transparency so that failing students will no longer be ignored. And then we need to reform it so that they will no longer fail.
Already President Obama, who managed to be elected in spite of his intellectualism, is taking steps to make this happen. The federal government gave nearly 100 billion dollars to education in the February stimulus package, enough funding to offset most of the state budget cuts made necessary by the economic downturn according to recovery.gov. This money can be used to improve failing schools, which account for almost all of the nation’s dropouts, rather than simply shutting them down. It can pay for increased teacher salaries to make the job more attractive, so that struggling schools are not stuck with the most reluctant and unqualified teachers. It can fund after-school programs, tutoring-whatever will help students to remain in school and succeed.
Simply throwing money at the problem will not solve it completely either. Our education laws must be reformed to adequately deal with the problems in our schools. The 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which set high standards for schools nationwide but gave schools no help in meeting them, needs to be revised to lessen the number of failing schools that will be forced to close-13 in New York City for this year alone. We also need to standardize the way that school districts report test scores and graduation rates, so that loopholes that allow the inflation of statistics will no longer be available.
This will not be an easy process, nor will it happen quickly. But if the United States wishes to continue to play a major role in world affairs, our government can’t let more than a third of its students fail to graduate high school any longer. We can’t afford that waste of potential.