Better, But Not Even Close to Enough

It's easy to find educators, politicians, and parents bemoaning the state of American education. It's a reliable applause line at political rallies, and unchallenged in newspaper editorial pages: American schools stink.

Except they don't. Not really. Schools all over the country are turning out students who work hard, take challenging classes, prepare well in K-12 for college-level work. As I watched my two college student kids take their long road through public elementary, middle, and high schools, I met their bright, ambitious, hard-working friends of all races and origins, and find it hard to make blanket statements about schools, schooling, and scholars.

Black and Latino high schoolers graduate at much higher rates than they did a generation ago, though their graduation rate is lower than the American average. Blacks and Latinos headed off to college in tiny numbers in the 1950s and 1960s. When college moved from being an elite experience reserved for a privileged few to a mass experience for young adults in this country, black and brown students headed off to college too. The question is what's good? What's good enough? Are we diagnosing our problems fairly? Are we clear about what success means?

There are great teachers, and terrible teachers. There are parents with little education who lean hard on their own kids, convinced that more school will help the next generation live better. And there are parents who simply don't place enough of a household priority on education.

As all schools wrestle with demands for reform and struggle to figure out how to get better results, there is a people-within-a-people that really can't wait much longer. Latinos are heading through the front doors of schools throughout the country in numbers that were unimaginable ten and twenty years ago. The largest single age cohort of Latinos is under five, so those numbers will rise even further in the next few school years.

The fastest growing minority group in the country, looking ahead to a majority-minority workforce in twenty years, and a majority-minority country in just over thirty years, isn't succeeding at school. Little more than half of Latino students graduate high school. Of that number, too few begin college. Of those who go to college, too many don't finish a two-year or four-year degree. Of those who do finish, too few seek post-graduate education. And once you get to that relatively tiny number of Latinos in grad school, only a relative handful are getting those advanced degrees in so-called STEM areas, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It will be interesting to see how long it will take for all Americans to see improving Latino educational achievement as part of their own self-interest. If the largest single part of your school population, and eventually the largest single part of your workforce is not prepared for high-skilled, high-wage work, it will be closer to impossible to maintain the country's high standard of living. Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, with today's wage-earners paying the benefits of today's retirees. When today's workers retire, their Social Security checks, in theory, will be paid by the wages of the workers of the 2030s... including hundreds of thousands of today's low-achieving Latino students.

This week's program on Destination Casa Blanca presented a smart, well-informed, realistic give-and-take on the challenge of raising student achievement. It is really hard to get millions of schoolkids through more years of education than their own parents had. If your parents dropped out of school before earning a high school diploma, it is far more likely that you'll drop out of school than that you'll earn a college diploma. If your parents completed college degrees it is far more likely that you'll earn a four-year degree than drop out of high school. The socio-economic successes and failures of today's generation tend to reproduce themselves in the next one.

The trick for America is to break that cycle of correlation. Smash it, and replace it with something better, and you have a better shot at widespread economic progress and greater security. Because we Latinos are so much more present in the United States than we were a generation ago, our failures will effect Americans far beyond our kitchen tables for decades to come.

The wider society will have to break the isolation of Latino kids in some of the most segregated schools in the country. A decision will have to be made to provide competent veteran teachers, and proper physical plants in which to learn, do laboratory work, and burn off excess energy in phys ed and dance. We are all in this. The future prosperity of us all relies on us getting it right.

In May, 2011, it is reasonable to wonder if this country is ready to do the work necessary to rewrite an unpromising American future. Watch the excerpts from the program on the Destination Casa Blanca website, and comment on the blog at the DCB website or on Huffington Post.