Get beyond rhetoric in curbing dropouts
Arizona Daily Star

My opinion Jay Ambrose

Tucson, Arizona | Published:


Dropping out of high school afflicts both those who do it and the nation, as Time magazine, Oprah Winfrey and others have been reminding us lately, and we therefore ought to try some answers despised by many on the left and perhaps by some of those doing the reminding.
The estimates of how many students don't graduate from high school and never go back range from about 15 percent to twice that, and 50 percent and higher among Hispanics and blacks. These dropouts are frequently left out out of jobs, out of luck, out of decent lives. Their prospects are often worse than bleak poverty, crime, prison.
Various programs can help, such as alternative schools and more intense counseling, and education reform matters profoundly. It's not just high schools that sometimes perform poorly, one critic observes, but grade schools that do not adequately prepare students for what they will face in high school. Even the education reforms people tend to agree on are tough but tougher still are vital cultural changes, and facing down the political and ideological opposition to radical rescue that relies on more than rhetoric.
First, we ought to drop the pretense beloved by some feminists that fathers are not needed and preach from every rooftop that having babies without a husband is not necessarily a means of long-term child abuse, but often is. Divorce does not help much, either.
Dysfunctional, child-neglecting families come in a variety of packages low-income, high-income, one-parent, two-parent but are more likely with a single parent than two, just as impoverishment is. Experts tell us that when these families fail to confer self-discipline, eagerness to excel and respect for learning and authority on their children, the children themselves fail, in school and all sorts of other pursuits.
We can't just pass a law and reduce births out of wedlock or the number of divorces with children in the home. What's required is a value shift encouraged by all manner of institutions and all sorts of leaders.
Similarly, we have to climb on the Bill Cosby bandwagon, reiterating over and over this great comedian's non-comedic message that our children will go awry if we don't inculcate the right standards in them that we badly need parenting that instructs the young that life is more than sports or wild clothes, that speaking good English counts, that school counts.
He was speaking to blacks, and some black leaders complained that he was providing excuses for those who discriminate. Nothing doing. Discrimination clearly exists, as Cosby knows, but he also knows that with or without discrimination, few are going to make much of themselves without mothers and fathers who teach them what successful living demands. It's a message that has equal validity for all.
And, finally, as one potentially mighty element of education reform, we should have more experiments in school vouchers, understanding that competition between schools is more likely to breed excellence than a virtual monopoly cozy in its mediocrity. True, there are wonderful public schools and principals and teachers, but those who aren't so wonderful would be challenged by a system helping the poor to have choices among private and public schools striving for those voucher dollars through fierce educational combat.
Vouchers might not chase bad teaching from the scene, but they offer hope and have no fault in principle. Opposition to trying voucher systems comes on many grounds, some thoughtful, some as a means of protecting special interests, many strictly ideological but it's a fallacy to suppose that they would make guinea pigs out of small children who might never recover. Many children are now in public schools from which they may never recover.
It's easy to point to the dropout problem and express concern and propose tinkering here and there, but what isn't easy though it could be the only thing that will make a difference is to push for some deep-down, fundamental changes many liberals don't care for.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers , is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at