Where's the Superman to Tackle Drug and Alcohol Abuse in our Schools and Colleges?

If we are serious about educating our children at every level from elementary school through college, we'd better recognize that money alone will not solve the problem. We can fill our schools with all the modern gadgetry -- computers, great graphics, television screens in every classroom, internet tutoring -- and we can pay teachers, principals, professors and college presidents more and more money. That's the easy stuff.

The tough stuff is revamping communities, strengthening parents and families, and getting rid of the drugs and the alcohol abuse that infect so many schools and campuses. If we don't tackle the tough stuff, these high ticket investments are not likely to have more than a marginal impact and we'll still be Waiting for 'Superman'.

Failure to face up to that truth is why school reform so often has little effect on our kids' education. There is only so much high tech tools and high paid teachers can accomplish.

Overall, only 71 percent of American students graduate from high school; in most urban centers, the number is no more than 50 percent. And usually, those graduation rates are calculated only from the kids that enter high school. If we started counting from first-grade in elementary school, the drop out rates would be much higher.

According to the NBC News Education Nation summit, among 30 other industrialized countries American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science. Seven out of 10 of our eighth-grade students can't read at their grade level.

To what extent are low reading and math scores and high drop out rates attributable to the failure of schools to have more modern plants and equipment? Or to teachers unions? And to what extent are they due to drug and alcohol use by teenagers in high school and their parents use or neglect?

About half the students who drop out are involved with alcohol and other drugs or have parents abusing such substances. We know from years of surveys that drugs and alcohol are commonly used, kept, or sold at most high schools and many middle schools.

Congress has appropriated $4.35 billion for schools in the 10 states that won the Race to the Top school reform contest. That same Congress eliminated $295 million in funding for the state grants to fund drug and violence prevention programs.

Take a walk around the outside of the schools in your community. Is there a sign that says Drug-Free School Zone? Have you ever thought about whether that sign is telling the truth? At The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University we have. We have talked to thousands of middle and high schoolers in small towns, medium-size cities and major urban centers all over the country. Most of them tell us that the words on that sign aren't worth the paint they're printed with.

Drugs and alcohol threaten our children's academic performance. Research shows that adolescents who smoke, drink or use other drugs have poorer grades, higher levels of truancy, cognitive impairments at school, and higher rates of suspension or expulsion. They are less likely to graduate from high school or to obtain a college or post-graduate degree than teens who remain substance free.

For the past 16 years CASA Columbia has been asking 12 to 17 year olds about the presence of drugs in the corridors, classrooms and grounds of their schools. Their consistent responses are these:

  • Responding to an open ended question, the largest percentage of teens say that their number one problem is drugs.
  • Eight of 10 high school students and four of 10 middle school students say that they see schoolmates possessing, using or dealing drugs, or getting high or drunk, at school.
  • One in three middle schoolers and two out of three high schoolers report that drugs are used, kept, or sold at their schools, continuing a steady increase in drug-infected high schools since 2006.

And what about those kids that do graduate high school and head to college? America now ranks tenth in the world in the percentage of young adults who graduate from college -- we used to be first.

There are many reasons why college students do not graduate, especially in these difficult economic times. But here's one you may not be aware of:

Among the college students who never graduate are these:

  • The 2,000 students who die each year from alcohol poisoning or alcohol related accidents and violence on college campuses.
  • Some of the 100,000 college women who each year are victims of sexual assault or rape due to alcohol abuse.
  • Some of the 700,000 college students who each year are injured as a result of alcohol related accidents or violence.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for the reforms that Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, state education officials, and mayors like Mike Bloomberg are seeking. I'm for all kinds of competition, from Race to the Top to charter schools, parochial schools, vouchers, for profit and not-for-profit private schools. I recognize that we must do lots of things to repair our broken elementary, middle and high schools and get our colleges to be more than a four- or five-year alcohol drenched party for millions of students. But if America wants to get serious about improving the education of our children in schools and colleges, all of the big bucks spent on other stuff will be for naught or of only marginal value unless we find the Superman to deal with the problem of alcohol and other drug abuse and addiction that undermine the education of our children.