One of the major stories in the media over the past week has been conservative outrage over the prospect of President Barack Obama addressing the nation's school children and advocating "his socialist agenda." In fact, his speech, which was delivered yesterday, focused on "the responsibility each of you has for your education."
In the President's words: "Every single one of you has something that you're good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That's the opportunity an education can provide."
If only the uproar had been over the importance of keeping students in school, instead of stoking the fires of unfounded ideological fear. The United States is facing a dropout crisis of huge proportions, and the President is right to focus on it. Nothing should be less controversial.
Only 53 percent of students in the principal school systems of our nation's 50 largest cities complete high school with a diploma, according to a recent report by Editorial Projects in Education (EPE), entitled "Closing the Graduation Gap." Sixteen of those cities have graduation rates below 50 percent. The rate is lower than 40 percent in Detroit, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.
Nationally, about 1.3 million students drop out each year, for an average of 7,200 every school day, according to America's Promise. Nearly 50 percent of African-American and Hispanic students do not complete high school on time.
"When more than 1 million students a year drop out of high school, it's more than a problem, it's a catastrophe," said former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, founding chair of America's Promise.
It's a catastrophe on many levels: for the students and their economic future; for our nation's workforce; and for our ability to compete globally in the sciences and technology, which have historically been the foundation of our global economic leadership.
In our nation's largest metropolitan areas, the likelihood of steady employment consistently increases with educational attainment, according to the EPE report. "Forty percent of nongraduates (in those areas) are employed full-time and year-round, compared with 52 percent of high school graduates. The steady-employment rate rises to 61 percent among those who have attained a four-year college degree. Statistics for the entire nation display a largely comparable pattern."
Educational attainment is also crucial to the competitiveness of our nation's workforce. We need as much well-educated talent as possible to maintain our economic leadership.
In the latest ranking of student performance in science among 15-year-olds, compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 36th. In contrast, Canada ranks 4th, and three of the top seven are Chinese: Hong Kong-China (3rd), Macao-China (5th), and Chinese Taipei (7th).
That's not good enough for continued U.S. global leadership, and we're not producing the volume of scientists that we need either. China produces about six times the number of engineers that we do; Japan, with half our population, produces twice what we do.
President Obama is right: keeping our nation's students in school is a crucial component of solving the problem. If they don't stay in school, how will their true talent be discovered and nurtured? How will our nation excel?
As President Obama said in his talk to students:
"Maybe you could be a good writer - maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper - but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class - that English class paper that's assigned to you. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor - maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or the new medicine or vaccine - but you might not know it until you do your project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a senator or a Supreme Court Justice - but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.
And no matter what you want to do with your life, I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You're going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to train for it and work for it and learn for it.
And this isn't just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. The future of America depends on you. What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future."
Keeping our nation's students in school is essential to U.S. prosperity. One speech won't solve the problem, but President Obama deserves credit for focusing the nation on the problem. The question now is: Will the public discourse in our nation allow an ongoing focus on this issue or will ideological venom polarize even the least controversial challenges we face as a nation?
James M. Gentile, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation (www.rescorp.org.).