Ask Obama, Romney How To Help Every Kid Complete High School

Now that the presidential campaign is entering the home stretch, I'll 'fess up to my own fantasy.

I'd like to ask President Obama and Mitt Romney a question about education on one of their nationally televised debates.

In the three nationally televised debates during the fall of 2008, there was only one question about education, and it was the final question in the final debate. This time, I'd like to ask President Obama and Governor Romney: How would you make sure that every young person graduates from high school, ready for college and career?

That question cuts to the core of whether we really have equal opportunity for education and employment. In this ultra-competitive economy, workers need not only high school diplomas but at least two more years of career training or higher education. But 7.4 percent of 16-24-year-olds, including eight percent of African Americans and 15.1 percent of Hispanics, have been pushed out or dropped out of high school.

The challenge is greatest in our major cities. In the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), we achieved a modest improvement when high school cohort graduation rates increased from 54.7 percent to 58.9 percent from the class of 2010 to the class of 2011, with African American graduation rates improving from 52.4 percent to 55.1 percent(1).

Still, according to a recent study conducted by the Urban Strategies Council for the East Bay Community Foundation, only 45 percent of African-American male students from kindergarten through grade 12 were "on course" for graduating from high school, while 21 percent were "at risk of being off course" and 34 percent were "off course."

The study showed that neighborhood poverty and violence were significantly related to whether young men were "at-risk" or "off-course." Chronic absence, suspensions, low academic performance, and health problems were warning signs. These problems are traced to multi-generational poverty, and suggested the need for adequate health care and quality after-school programs.

So let's ask President Obama and Governor Romney: How can we help all our young people to make the journey from classrooms to careers? Learning is the path and career is the goal. Someone who doesn't graduate high school will earn $630,000 less over their lifetime than someone who has earned at least a GED. When today's dropouts cannot support themselves and their families tomorrow, we all pay the price, in social problems, a slumping economy, and spiraling spending for public assistance.

We need to move beyond the old answers of Left and Right, such as simply increasing public spending or privatizing public schools. We need to use existing resources more strategically and be more imaginative about building partnerships between our public schools and the private sector. Well-educated literate children are the most important renewable resource we have. Quality education is everyone's responsibility.

Our experience in Oakland offers some lessons. With some 70 percent (2) of Oakland's students coming from low-income households, problems such as unemployment, poverty, crime, gangs, drugs and disease don't stop at the schoolhouse doors. Understanding these social determinants of health is why we're transforming Oakland Unified into a "community school district," with social and emotional support services that care for children not only as pupils but as whole people, including healthcare, dental and eye care, nutrition, recreation and before-school and after-school programs.

With less than half of African American males graduating from Oakland schools, we have made African American male achievement an intense focus(3). With guns too easily available and Oakland children murdered at an alarming rate, our recreation programs are striving to "take back the weekend," while "restorative justice" programs are helping young people settle disputes nonviolently and build skills to live healthier lives. With 450 children and youth released from juvenile justice facilities every year, the schools provide services and supports, including educational assessment and placement and referrals to medical and mental health services(4).

Important institutions are also pitching in. With a $7.5 million investment, Kaiser Permanente is supporting school-based health centers, community-based violence prevention and a youth mentoring program for at-risk youth. The Irvine foundation is helping us create "linked-learning" pathways in our high schools leading to productive careers for Oakland citizens. The Oakland Housing Authority and OUSD are sharing data that helps support young people in public-subsidized housing, as well as hiring educational directors and offering incentives for improved attendance and achievement.

If America's public school systems don't help kids from low-income families to overcome the barriers to achievement by creating real opportunities, then no one else will. To achieve our country's bold economic and education goals, we must be disciplined and work hard together.

President Obama and Governor Romney, please take note.

Tony Smith is Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, one of the most improved school systems in California.


(1) Data Source: California Department of Education "Cohort Outcome Data" research data file.
Year 2010-11 data file release date: July 2012

(2) OUSD Nutrition Services, percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price breakfast and lunch under the National School Lunch Program. Eligibility is based upon low-income status. The exact percentage for 2011-12 school year for OUSD grades K-12 was 69.86% eligible for free or reduced price lunch.

(3) Data Source: California Department of Education "Cohort Outcome Data" research data file.
Year 2010-11 data file release date: July 2012. Analysis using the Cohort Outcome Data research data file conducted by OUSD Research, Assessment & Data (RAD) department.
The 2011 Cohort Graduation Rate for African American Males in OUSD was 46.9%, or "less than half" of African American students who started in the grade 9 cohort in 2007-08 graduated with their cohort in four years.

(4) Data Source: OUSD Family Community Office 2011