When President Bush chose to fund the lion’s share of his high school initiative by diverting funds from popular programs such as vocational education, GEAR UP, and TRIO, the proposal was widely seen as dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. While funding for the president’s initiative is still on life support, the need for improvement in our nation’s high schools remains very much alive, as U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings reminded audiences in her Back-to-School Address on September 21. She reiterated the theme in her testimony before a House Education and the Workforce Committee’s hearing, “Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools: The No Child Left Behind Act.”
Spellings highlighted recent comments by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems, about the need to create an education system that helps more American students graduate and be competitive in the job market, both at home and internationally. Failing to help students at risk of dropping out is not only morally unacceptable, Spellings said, it is “economically untenable.” As she explained:
Studies show the staggering cost of high school dropouts. In addition to lost earnings for the individual, consider the cost to society. The one million students who drop out of high school each year cost our nation more than $260 billion in lost wages, lost taxes, lost productivity over their lifetime. In federal dollars, that will buy you ten years of research at the National Institutes of Health. When we lose a million students each and every year, it has a tremendous impact on our economy, and it represents the American dream denied. So I would suggest, for this and a host of other reasons, how well our students are doing is not just an education issue; it’s an economic issue, a civic issue, a national security issue, and it’s everybody’s issue.
Although some surveys show that many members of the general public think it is unrealistic to expect every student to graduate from high school, Spellings adamantly disagrees, and addressed the issue directly, “Take a look at our high school graduation rates,” she said. “Among ninth graders, five out of ten minority students fail to finish high school on time. Overall, three out of ten don’t finish on time. Would we tolerate three out of every ten planes going down? Would we tolerate three out of every ten heart surgeries falling? Then why is it okay for three out of ten kids to drop out?”
Congressional Reaction to Federal Role in High Schools Remains Mixed
Speaking to members of Congress last week, Spellings again stressed the need to raise the academic achievement levels of the nation’s middle and high school students. She pointed to recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term-trend assessments in reading and math that showed no measurable change in average scores for seventeen-year-olds since 1971.
After her testimony, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) expressed a concern about preparing students for the workforce: “[S]ome three or four million jobs in America are going begging today because American companies can’t find the people with the skills and/or education to fill these jobs.”
But Boehner remained hesitant about a more active federal role in high school improvement efforts. Instead, he suggested that Congress’s focus on early childhood development would help prevent dropouts down the road. “I am one of those who believe that we don’t lose [students] in high school,” he said. “We lose them in grades one through three when the fire of learning isn’t lit.” He added that improvement shown by nine-year-olds in the NAEP reading and math trends data will help Congress address the high school problem. Boehner also says that a balancing act is needed with regard to the demands that the federal government places on schools. “While I want more rigor, while I want more time on task, I don’t want to get in the position where we so overly burden our schools so quickly that people just give up and walk away.”
Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), saying that Congress should not wait until the reauthorization of NCLB to address the problems in high schools, asked about the Bush administration’s effort in pushing its high school initiative. In response, Spellings admitted that the administration’s strategy might not have been the “exact right one,” but stressed that the high school issue needed attention. She expressed frustration with the lack of data around proven solutions. “We have a dearth of information about what the problem is, for whom, what’s the cure, and so on,” she said. “We think students drop out because they lack reading skills . . . we think there’s disengagement, but we’re doing a lot of guessing about what’s wrong in high schools and what the right policy levers to work with are, and we need some data.”
She expressed a similar sentiment in her Back-to-School Address. “I think the facts [about the need for high school reform] are there,” she said. “And I’m going to use forums like this to frame the problem, and I’m very confident that eventually [Congress will] come on board.”
Secretary Spellings’s Back-to-School Address: http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2005/09/09292005.html.
Testimony and video from House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing: http://edworkforce.house.gov/hearings/109th/fc/fchearings.htm.