Ending the Dropout Crisis: The Next Moon Shot

Like it did for millions of Americans, Neil Armstrong's death brought back a vivid memory for me. I will never forget July 21, 1969. I was eight years old. My parents woke me during what I thought was the middle of the night (apparently it was 10:56 p.m.) so that I could watch the first astronaut walk on the moon. A great national challenge issued by President John F. Kennedy had been met: We had sent a man to the moon and returned him safely to earth before the decade was out.

It has become cliché to compare every great objective to a "moon shot," or perhaps more commonly to lament, "If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they do X?" -- and "X" is often a pet peeve.

But President Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon -- made at Rice University fifty years ago today -- provides powerful insights into what national cause is worthy of a "moon shot" -- and what it takes to achieve it.

First, President Kennedy presented the "moon shot" as vital to our national security, our national character and our national purpose. Second, he set a bold transformational goal -- grand but achievable -- with a clear metric for success. Finally, success would depend on developing imaginative new technologies and the heroism of a select cohort of Americans, our astronauts.

"In short," said President Kennedy, "our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort."

If there is any area of our public life that cries out for a new moon shot, it the alarming number of young people who drop out of high school in America, one every 26 seconds. We need to end this dropout crisis and send students from kindergarten safely through high school graduation before the decade is out.

There is little doubt that ending the dropout crisis would be transformational for the country, both in terms of economic cost and our moral commitments.

For an individual student who gives up on school -- as more than one million do each year -- dropping out is a fast track to an underclass: Dropouts are eight times more likely to be incarcerated and three times more likely to be in poor health and unemployed than graduates.

If left unchecked, the 12 million students who will dropout over the next decade will cost the nation a whopping $3 trillion, not to mention the incalculable cost of lost hope and unmet potential. Low graduation rates are even a threat to our national security, as close to three quarters of young Americans are ineligible to join the army, with lack of educational skills as a leading cause.

Just like the moon was both a barrier and a gateway to the planets and stars, high school graduation is a barrier and a gateway to the nation's future economic competitiveness and access to the American Dream for millions of young people, especially in communities of color.

Like President Kennedy's challenge, there's a clear metric for success: raise the national graduation rate to 90 percent. That's the bipartisan goal put forward by President Obama and the Building a Grad Nation report.

On average, three quarters of the nation's young people graduate high school -- but in high poverty communities the likelihood of graduating with your class is often a fifty-fifty proposition.

Just 12 percent of America's high schools produce half of the nation's dropouts. For an education moon shot, improving the nation's chronically underperforming schools is where the Eagle has to land.

And like the moon landing, it will take new technologies to solve the dropout crisis.

Kennedy understood that really big goals unleash powerful creative forces to remove all obstacles to success. To reach the moon, he predicted, we would need "new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented" and heat shields that could withstand "half that of the temperature of the sun."

Many of the educational equivalents to the new metal alloys and heat shields needed to solve the dropout crisis are being invented by innovative public and charter schools, nonprofits, academics and education practitioners- extended learning time, one-on-one and small group tutoring, rigorous use of student data, and breakthrough attendance, and social and emotional learning initiatives.

Research by Johns Hopkins University found that early warning indicators -- high absences, poor behaviors and getting an "F" in math or English -- are highly predictive, as early as late elementary school, that a student will dropout. Address these indicators at the scale required and thousands of students can get back on track.

Finally, to land on the moon, it took a few extraordinary Americans with "the right stuff." To solve the dropout crisis, it will take many ordinary Americans with an extraordinary commitment to do the right things to help students succeed.

It begins with an effective, committed teacher -- but in high-poverty schools it often takes so much more.

What's needed is a dramatic increase in the people power necessary to take effective innovations to scale.

We need the one million volunteers that the United Way is organizing to help in America's schools. And we need the thousands of young people who are applying to serve full-time in AmeriCorps in records numbers -- 582,000 applications last year alone for just 80,000 spots.

Let's challenge the young people of America to give a year of service in America's schools to inspire the next generation to reach for the stars, just like Neil Armstrong did for me.