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Alliance President Bob Wise on Building a Grad Nation Summit

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March 27, 2012 05:20 pm


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Last week, the 2012 Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington, DC saw a powerful collection of hundreds of practitioners, policymakers, community and business leaders, and students gathered together to mobilize against the high school dropout crisis. From the hundreds of individual voices in the crowd came a clear, single message: improving educational outcomes for the nation’s students is a critical mission, but today, the need has heightened to a fever pitch.

As a nation, the United States finds itself at a unique crossroad; changing demographics have changed the game. No longer can the nation afford—morally or economically—to allow its students of color and Native students to drop out of high school at the current and alarmingly high rates.

For many decades, those pressing for education reform have approached the need from either a civil rights or an economic perspective. Today, those perspectives are one and the same.

The civil rights, or equity, perspective urges the moral imperative to improve the educational outcomes of all students who are from traditionally underserved and underrepresented groups. As I heard the then-chancellor of New York City schools, Joel Klein, once state, “If there is one school in your district that you won’t send your child to, then you need to be involved.” Well established through research by the Alliance for Excellent Education (the Alliance), as well as other research, is that dropping out of high school will have a devastating financial impact on these students as adults.

For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a high school dropout is much more likely to be unemployed with a reported 15 percent unemployment rate in 2010. That is 5 percentage points higher than the unemployment rate of high school graduates and nearly 10 points higher than the unemployment rate of individuals with a bachelor’s degree. This is the first recession where education attainment so prominently determined who was laid off.

For high school dropouts who do find employment, they can expect an average hourly wage of just $9, compared to $13 for high school graduates and $25 for those with a bachelor’s degree. Failing to ensure that students from traditionally underserved and underrepresented communities graduate from high school will only further the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement.

The economic perspective presses the need for education reform by demonstrating that the best economic stimulus package for a community , state, or nation is a high school diploma. It has been well documented by many respected researchers that improving the high school graduation rate will save taxpayers money and ensure that the nation has enough skilled workers to fulfill future workforce needs.

However, research by the Alliance through generous support from State Farm® demonstrates that improving the high school graduation rate can actually grow the nation’s economy. For example, if every state were to meet the Grad Nation goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate, there would be 585,000 additional graduates from the Class of 2011 alone.

Those additional high school graduates would have likely yielded huge benefits to the national economy including $5.3 billion in additional annual net earnings, $19 billion more spent on home purchases, and an additional $669 million spent annually on vehicle purchases. This increased economic activity would send a ripple effect throughout the country, which could support as many as 37,000 new jobs, boost the gross domestic product by as much as $6.6 billion, and yield up to $1.8 billion in additional annual tax revenues. And those are only the benefits the nation would likely see if a single high school class were to meet the 90 percent graduation rate goal.

Today, however, the imperative is no longer a matter of equity or the economy but rather equity and the economy. A look at the changing faces of students sitting at desks in schools across the country makes it clears why; in a dozen states, students of color and Native students comprise the majority of the student body. In ten additional states, students of color make up between 40 percent and 50 percent of K–12 enrollment. These numbers will only get larger.

As the economic and cultural makeup of the nation evolves, the two imperatives for improving educational outcomes are inextricably and permanently intertwined. Currently, students of color in many schools graduate from high school at rates between 50 percent and 60 percent. As these groups continue to grow—while their graduation rates remain abysmally low—the nation’s economy will miss out on the much-needed boost that would likely come if it were to educate all of its students better. Therefore, the nation now shoulders both an economic and moral obligation to assure educational attainment for these students.

Now that the Building a Grad Nation Summit has ended and its attendees have gone back home to their communities, it is critical to maintain the energy and urgency of the convening and make sure that everyone in those communities is engaged in increasing high school graduation rates. Hopefully, the 70 percent of the American public without children currently in the K–12 system will respond because of the moral imperative, but they must also know that what happens in that high school across town has a direct impact on their economic and social well-being.

The United State’s manual, labor-based economy is a thing of the past. In the twenty-first-century economy, the nation’s future now rests on the brains, not backs, of its students. However, with rapidly changing demographics, a strong economy requires strong equity. Collectively, all parents, community members, business leaders, and policymakers must understand that they can neither morally nor economically afford to be complacent about the high school dropout crisis.

Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.


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