Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Our nation has been asleep at the dropout switch for three decades. Consider that 24 years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education sounded a call to action: “Our Nation is at risk… the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” One bright spot for the commission was that schools had become engines of social opportunity by increasing high-school graduation rates to 75 percent.

Since that time, however, our country has made virtually no progress in improving graduation rates even though education reform has been high on the public agenda. Fortunately, there are real signs of stirring.

Two years ago, Bill Gates called America’s high schools “obsolete” and sounded the alarm that nearly one-third of students in public high school — and nearly one half of minorities — were failing to graduate with their class. Last year, a first-of-its-kind survey of students, The Silent Epidemic, gave the country hope that the dropout crisis could be addressed if students had schools with more challenging coursework, engaging teachers and access to extra help. Most dropouts themselves told us they had passing grades, big career dreams, and the confidence to graduate.

Now, there is a clear sense of urgency and purpose behind efforts to reduce the number of dropouts. As evidence of the growing momentum, yesterday a national dropout summit in Washington — co-led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, Civic Enterprises, Time and MTV — brought educators and policy-makers from all 50 states together with innovators and experts to throw down the gauntlet for reform.

Students in difficult circumstances will share their perspectives and ideas for change — including Jynell Harrison, winner of MTV’s national “Be the Voice” college scholarship competition. The premier of an MTV documentary, the “Dropout Chronicles,” will feature stories and ideas for reform from students. Leading experts steeped in dropout reform will provide a new online resource that enables any school district in America to obtain its graduation rate compared to the state and nation, including in what grades the school is losing its students. Experts will provide specific recommendations on what communities can do to stem the dropout tide.

The superintendent of a small Midwestern high school whose admission of a school dropout problem landed his town on the cover of Time’s “Dropout Nation” will share the podium with the superintendent of the largest public school district in the country, New York City. Both have accurate information on their graduation rates and ambitious plans to ensure more students finish high school ready for college and the workplace.

Our nation’s governors remain focused on the dropout challenge. Two years ago, all 50 signed a compact to calculate graduation rates in the same way. Earlier this year, many called attention to the dropout epidemic in their state of the state addresses. Now, in conjunction with the National Summit, governors will feature their efforts to pass laws raising the compulsory school attendance age, lend support to high-school redesign, and spark more community backing of our schools.

The federal government has important roles to play. First Lady Laura Bush has made the plight of disadvantaged youth, particularly at-risk boys, a signature initiative. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will come forward with new policies that ensure our systems of accountability close the achievement gap and increase rates of graduation. Congress, led by Sens. Jeff Bingaman, Richard Burr and Edward Kennedy, has introduced legislation that provides needed support to fuel innovation and reform to help more students stay on track to graduate. And two of America’s premiere foundations — led by Bill and Melinda Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad — have launched a “Strong American Schools” initiative to keep issues relevant to the dropout epidemic, such as teacher quality, rigorous standards and extra learning supports, as priorities for the 2008 presidential candidates.

Reflecting the local energy behind this issue, America’s Promise will help local communities engage every sector of our society to strengthen America’s schools and ensure we stop losing one million of our children from the educational pipeline each year.

Ours can be the generation that transformed a nation at risk into a nation of hope. Let us begin.

John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises, the institution leading yesterday’s national dropout summit, and co-author of The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.

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