- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2005

The nation’s governors, facing a 32-percent drop-out rate among high school students across the country, spoke with urgency yesterday about the need to redesign the system so students graduate and are prepared to succeed in college and in the workplace.

“Many of us here today would say the situation in America’s high schools should be described as a crisis,” Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, told at least 45 governors and more than 100 business and education leaders as he convened the first National Education Summit devoted to high schools.

“And this issue is terribly important in terms of our efforts to restore America’s competitiveness in the world economy,” said Mr. Warner, the co-chairman of the National Governors Association (NGA).

Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, the NGA’s Republican co-chairman, said all governors are united in their commitment to solve the problem.

“This is an issue that transcends all those typical things that cause people to split in different directions,” Mr. Huckabee said. “This is about the starting line, not the finish line,” he said.

The failure of high schools to prepare students adequately for college and the workplace costs the U.S. economy at least $16 billion a year in lost productivity, according to a video shown during the summit’s plenary session at the JW Marriott Hotel in the District.

In terms of personal income, Mr. Huckabee said, “The difference between high school and college education is at least a million dollars over a lifetime.”

Multibillionaire Bill Gates, who dropped out of college to found Microsoft, expressed moral outrage during his keynote speech about high schools that continue to separate students into college and noncollege courses, with minority and low-income children most often steered away from rigorous classes.

“Everyone who understands the importance of education, everyone who believes in equal opportunity, everyone who has been elected to uphold the obligations of public office should actually be ashamed that we are breaking our promise of a free education for millions of students,” Mr. Gates said to applause.

“America’s high schools are obsolete,” he said. “By obsolete, I don’t mean our high schools are broken, flawed and underfunded, though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean that our high schools, even when they’re working exactly as designed, cannot teach all our kids what they need to know today.”

He said the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed $2.3 billion toward education-reform projects, including more that $1 billion for newly designed high schools.

The schools have academically rigorous courses relevant to students’ lives and goals, and foster relationships with adults “who know them, look out for them and push them to achieve,” Mr. Gates said.

The NGA leaders and Mr. Gates underscored the gravity of the high school crisis with data provided by Achieve Inc., a nonprofit bipartisan foundation created by the nation’s governors to help states raise academic standards.

According to the data:

• Sixty-eight of every 100 high school students graduate on time, with about one-third dropping out after entering ninth grade. The high school drop-out rate has grown yearly since 1983, when the Reagan administration issued a major report about the crisis in American education called “A Nation at Risk.”

• Forty of every 100 high school graduates go on to college, with just 27 continuing college into their second year.

• Eighteen of 100 high school graduates who go to college graduate on time from either two- or four-year colleges.

• Among the 20 leading developed nations in the world, the United States ranks 16th in the percentage of high school students it graduates and 14th in the percentage of college students it graduates. India and China — not included in the ranking as developed nations — both graduate more engineers than the United States.

Mr. Warner said the goal of the summit, which ends today , is to map an agenda for high school reform that dovetails with a Bush administration initiative to match high school standards and graduation requirements with college-level preparation.

“It’s really going to take the governors to carry the ball” to get the country behind a united effort to target high schools for “comprehensive and sustained change,” Mr. Warner said.

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