Sixty percent is a failing grade. Sixty percent is also where the high school graduation rate for Chicago Public Schools hovers.
It’s a shame when any child doesn’t pass, but when failure happens at this rate, it’s an educational crisis. When nine-tenths of the students in this system are low-income and more than four-fifths are minorities, it’s a profound social and racial injustice. And when the eventual alternatives are for these students to become fodder for back-breaking minimum-wage slavery, unemployment lines, homeless shelters, prisons and morgues, it’s a national tragedy.
Welcome to American education, circa 2012; this is what is at stake. Pundits have spilled veritable rivers of ink (keystrokes, really) since the Chicago teachers’ strike began last Monday. But they have barely begun to scratch the surface of the kind of sea change in national mindset we need to achieve to set our schools on track.
Much of the discussion in the wake of the ongoing strike has been deep down in the policy weeds, where bickering about school day length and the weight of standardized testing reigns. These issues are incredibly important, and I find these discussions fascinating. But the more I think about it all, the more I worry that Chicago’s latest iteration of the boisterous American education debate is emblematic of an all-too-human failing. We have a tendency to miss the forest for the trees.
What is that forest, the macro picture, exactly? It is nicely encapsulated by two statistics. One: A quarter of public high school students are not graduating on time, if they graduate at all. The other: Demographers tell us that, as of 2009, people under 20 years of age made up over a quarter of the U.S. population, or roughly 75 million.
Taken in conjunction, these facts indicate that this is a problem of colossal proportions, and one that is likely to become worse as even more children (the majority of them historically disadvantaged minorities) wind their way through the system. Seriously, people, it’s time to pay attention.
Seeing the forest also involves panning out from schools for a moment, to a global economy that is rapidly changing in unforeseen ways. More and more businesses are choosing to invest in capital instead of labor, for a host of sensible reasons. Machines don’t take vacation or sick time or maternity leave. They don’t require safe working conditions. They don’t force employers to shell out for payroll taxes. They don’t need human resources departments or managers. And they don’t leave your company or die after you’ve spent precious time and money training them. Machines are pretty much more attractive in every way — for business owners. This is why, in industry after industry, people are being replaced by incredibly capable robots.
Back to the schools. We produce millions of kids who are functionally illiterate and can’t solve basic math problems. Even the ones who make it through high school don’t have particularly employable skills. In an economy where many of the brightest are struggling to find steady jobs, we really expect them to do fine as capital continues to replace labor?
Some of the answers floated to this problem have already crept into the education debate: Narrowly-tailored, vocational education. Re-training after job loss. But these do not take into account the system we are working with. People who never learned to read cannot be trained to function in the new economy, no matter what new kinds of jobs get invented. What are you going to retrain them to do, when they start from such a low base? Biochemical engineering? Consulting? Programming?
Truth be told, the pitiful amount of funding and collective attention we’ve put into raising and teaching children is largely to blame. This is what looking at the forest means. The education debate is a fire that has given off a lot of heat but little light, particularly when our leaders stay out of it for political expediency (Obama) or offer platitudes like “increasing choice” (Romney). Our leaders need to inspire dramatic American unification behind the cause of education, instead of letting lip service carry the day.
If we’re to fix schools to a degree that will make a difference before it is too late, education needs to become a topic on par with the sacred space the economy and jobs have occupied in our public sphere. Those issues and education are more linked now than ever before, because the old jobs are not coming back.
Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .