Suzanne Fields

It's a lot later than we think. We're raising an illiterate and uneducated generation, and there's more to come. On April 1, America's Promise Alliance released a detailed study revealing that fewer than half of the teenagers in 17 of the largest U.S. cities drop out of high school before they graduate -- more than 1.2 million of them. The cost of this is enormous: billions of dollars in lost productivity for expensive social services and (because ignorance begets crime) to build more prisons. This report sounded like an April Fool's joke on the growing number of fools, meaning all of us.

The high school dropout resembles the fool depicted on Tarot cards -- standing at the edge of a precipice, with no idea how far he'll fall, when fall he will. It's no coincidence that the number symbol for the fool is a zero. A hundred times zero is still zero.

"When more than 1 million students a year drop out of high school, it's more than a problem, it's a catastrophe," says Colin Powell, the former secretary of State and founding chairman of America's Promise Alliance. His wife Alma chairs the Alliance now. Speaking as the old soldier he is, he describes these statistics as "a call to arms." The Powells are joining Margaret Spellings, secretary of Education, to call for summits in every state to figure out how to halt the decline in graduation rates, as well as to better prepare public school graduates for work and college.

But do we really need more meetings to talk endlessly (and tediously) about shopworn educational ideas and stale theories? Alma Powell answers the question before someone asks it: The summits won't be jabber-jabber sessions. "They will be about action," and demand that local, state and federal policymakers, grass roots communities, parents, students and advocates confront the reality now.

The statistics show what seems obvious to everybody: City kids are far more likely to live on the precipice than kids from the suburbs. The Editorial Projects in Education Research Center finds that graduation rates in city schools are 15 percentage points lower than those in the suburbs. In some cities, the disparity is as wide as 35 percent. It's the kids in the largest cities who can't see the value of an education. Life on the street and the grunt jobs found there ought to make even homework look attractive.

Knowledge is power, and this is the lesson we have to find a way to teach. Only by identifying horrific statistical disparities can we begin to demand change. But, we must be careful about what kind of change to make.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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