- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

At its root, American education is based on a social contract we have with our children. They promise us to wake up each morning and dutifully study the subjects we want them to learn. In return, we promise them the tools, skills and opportunities they need to realize their dreams.

That silent agreement, which helped create equal prosperity and an economic edge for generations of Americans, started to slip in the 1970s, as country after country passed us by with higher graduation rates.

Today, America is the only industrialized nation in the world where children are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents. A student drops out of high school every 26 seconds, 1.2 million children each year. Three in 10 students fail to graduate with their class, a percentage that doubles for minority, urban and low-income students.

The probability of earning a high school diploma is as likely as a coin toss for many students in America’s 50 largest cities. Of those who do graduate, many are unprepared for college or a career. This country cannot succeed in the global marketplace without an educated work force. Simply put, the high school dropout and college-readiness crisis is the greatest long-term threat to our economic security and moral authority as a nation.

Despite innovative interventions waged from every angle in the education system over the last 30 years, many of our efforts have failed to produce a significant change in graduation rates.

Now, led by a president who exemplifies what a good education and hard work can accomplish, along with a dynamic secretary of education, we have an opportunity to finally put our country back on the path to greatness.

We must move quickly. There is no longer time for incremental change. But to determine the most effective solutions, we must engage in a dialogue with the most important stakeholders: our children. Their voices, individual and collective, will help us find a lasting solution to the dropout and college-readiness crisis.

While there have been recent improvements to quantitative academic assessment, we all know a great education is about more than standardized tests. In fact, socio-emotional indicators, such as students’ hope, engagement and well-being, are better indicators of future academic performance, retention and employment than grade- point averages and SAT or ACT scores.

To provide a more complete picture, Gallup and America’s Promise Alliance recently launched the Gallup Student Poll, a 10-year effort to survey the largest-ever group of young people enrolled in grades 5-12 about their ideas for the future, involvement in school, and feelings about their lives.

The results from 70,000 students nationwide are both encouraging and alarming. Only half of students are hopeful for the future, and just 53 percent feel engaged in the classroom. Though 6 in 10 students said they smiled or laughed at school yesterday, less than 50 percent said they were treated with respect all day.

Though 95 percent of respondents said they will graduate, we know fewer than 3 in 4 will receive a diploma on time.

If we aim to build a nation where every child has an equal opportunity to live up to his or her potential and make a difference, we need to give students a voice and a role in their own education.

If we want to leave our children a better world than the one we inherited, where a quality public education is a fundamental right, we must ask them what that future looks like.

If we are to stay true to our own values and vision for a stronger America, we must include students in the movement to end the dropout crisis.

We must empower students to take action on their dreams and bend the arc of history once more, as Martin Luther King said, toward justice. Now is the time to seize our moment and turn our nation’s possibility into progress. The world isn’t waiting, and neither can we.

Jim Clifton is chairman and chief executive officer of the Gallup Organization, which has studied human nature and behavior for more than 70 years. Marguerite Kondracke is president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest partnership alliance committed to the well-being of children.

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