Food For Thought

'Education Is Failing Our Children -- Just Look at the Dropout Rate'

by Dr. John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John Bonfadini

The title of this column is from a recent statement by a U.S. senator. Politicians can always find fault with education. Every election cycle brings a new wave of criticism. Itís fashionable for the political establishment to point out perceived failures, and almost all politicians say they are going to fix the problems. Yet as the years pass, it seems that few problems ever get ďfixed.Ē The school dropout rate is one example.

How could anyone think education alone is to blame for the school dropout rate? Just look at the demographics. In the largest 50 city schools the graduation rate is 58 percent. Seventeen of the large city schools have graduation rates of less than 50 percent. Suburban communities have significantly better graduation rates, but even the best schools have approximately one in five students who fails to receive a diploma.

Nationally, one of every three students fails to graduate. To think that simply making programmatic changes in the educational offerings will totally solve the dropout problem is naive. I do believe that the current trend of requiring more so-called academic courses can contribute to the problem; but in general, our education system is pretty good.

To correct a problem, a cause must be identified. First and foremost, a student must be able to complete the work. Some students just donít have it. Through no fault of their own, they donít have the ability to succeed in a traditional academic environment. Weíve made great progress in meeting the needs of these students, but some still fall through the cracks. The students who are really neglected are not the ones who have major learning disabilities or are gifted and talented. Often, the average kids are the ones who are neglected.

One challenge is finding ways to assist students who come from disadvantaged homes. Ultimately, a childís desire to learn is nurtured at home. Parents are more important than teachers. They are the true teachers of all the skills needed to succeed in life. The schools only assist in this development process. If education has failed, itís usually because the parents have also failed.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on Meet the Press that education is the key to the United States maintaining its competitive edge in a global economy. He went on to talk about responsibility, effort, teamwork, honesty and dedication. He never said that students should all have advanced algebra and other intellectual courses. Heís right on target.

Our current economic problems were caused by the most highly educated members of our society. They implemented practices in the financial markets that brought us to where we are. Our highly educated politicians also contributed to our dilemma. Factory workers probably had little to do with creating current economic conditions, although they too should always have the desire to build the best products and provide the best services. We should respect those who, like my dad (who worked in a coal mine), work at less glamorous but vitally important jobs. As a society we must recapture an appreciation for all workers, for everyone who contributes to our progress and well-being.

I know that our public school graduates can answer a phone with the same proficiency as those of foreign countries. The reason that foreign countries are providing these services has nothing to do with education and everything to do with cost of labor.

The current trend of making public-school education more preparation for college is just wrong. What if we were able to achieve the goal of having every student graduate with the necessary courses, grades, and test scores required for college? The colleges would then have to select students according to other criteria, which probably would be more qualitative, like personality, enthusiasm, desire and similar traits. As a society we just donít need everyone to have a college education.

The recession has taught us many lessons. If jobs arenít available, it doesnít matter if you have a degree or you are a school dropout ó unemployment has the same effect. When schools offer a wide variety of programs that reflect the needs of all society, they add credence to all occupations. They also offer more opportunities for students to succeed. Educators need to rethink the current trend. Maybe 12 years of college-prep education isnít for everyone. Some students may be better off leaving school and entering a work environment; but for this to happen there must be jobs and parallel learning opportunities.

Education needs major surgery, not just a band-aid approach requiring more traditional courses or improving standardized test scores. The ultimate goal of attending college is to get a job. There is no dignity in unemployment, even if you have a doctorate. The traditional liberal-arts approach is no longer valid. Just think of all the courses you took in high school or college. Which ones contributed significantly to your overall growth?

Schools are deleting art, music, technical, physical education, and other courses so students can take more college-prep courses like math, foreign language, and creative writing. In my opinion this is a major mistake. To meet the goal of having more students graduate will require a more flexible curriculum that centers on individual student needs, rather than college-entrance requirements. If students do drop out and enter the world of work, programs should be available to help them continue their formal education. Education doesnít begin in kindergarten or end with high-school graduation. Itís a lifelong process.

I just listened to a radio commentator criticize students because only 50 percent could calculate the amount of a meal tip. If thatís a math skill students need, perhaps schools should spend time teaching basic math instead of requiring theoretical math.

The message educators and politicians alike should be sending is, stay in school until you are sure you have the skill to get a job.

Then, letís hope that our business and political leaders have the skill and integrity to develop an economy that produces employment opportunity. 

Whats Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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