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Home » Chalk Talk – State of the Union

February 3, 2005

Calling for a renewed focus on high school achievement, President George W. Bush last night formally unveiled his plan to make sure a diploma actually counts for more than the paper it is printed on.

With increasing challenges facing American high school students, and a precipitous decline in student achievement that gets bigger the longer a child is in U.S. schools, Bush’s State of the Union clarion call was right on target.

As dramatic as it may sound, a child’s long-term educational achievement is usually sealed by the 3rd grade. It’s by that time in his life that he should have mastered reading, arithmetic and related fundamentals. That’s not to say that a child is doomed to failure after that, but it does require more than a standard classroom after that time to accelerate a child who was woefully lacking after those formative years.

Spending time on the early years is critical. But the fact is that today, right now, there are more than 15 million children in grades 9-12 of whom a majority did not have the benefit of a truly demanding educational experience. The result is watered-down high school programs and a rush to get kids passed quickly through those challenging years.

We know from government data that a student who takes algebra in high school is more likely to be successful in college. We also know that 30 percent of students drop out of high school before they can even get to that level. College completion rates are nothing to brag about either. In the U.S., roughly 50 percent of students who start college go on to graduate.

In math and science, not only are other countries out-scoring U.S. students, but also U.S. companies are forced to hire from abroad to fill key technical and scientific jobs because students here are lacking so many skills.

We’ve let high schools slide. Most of us have incredibly fond, if not the best, memories from high school. It seemed more than just academics, and as a mother of four, I hate to rob my own kids of the ability to enjoy the more social aspects of school. But the pendulum has swung the other way. Today most high schools are too big to focus on what students need most, too accommodating to a variety of interests and electives, not rigorous enough to prepare students for a successful college experience, and not accountable for the quality of their graduates.

Leaving no child behind should extend to leaving no high school students behind. It’s a tough few years, and like many parents, I struggle to keep up with various demands with my own teenagers. But I know that if they are successful in high school, not only will college be easier, it will make a difference in what they end up doing and how they contribute to this nation.

With controversy still surfacing over No Child Left Behind mandates on elementary schools, the same will no doubt plague the push for high school level reform from the feds. Maybe, just maybe this time, the partisans and the status quo will put their bickering behind and do something that will help close the pernicious achievement gap and guarantee more children a higher chance at a better life. Maybe. We can only hope.