Many teens ill-equipped for good jobs or college


Published: Thursday, September 1, 2005 at 10:58 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 1, 2005 at 10:58 a.m.
First the bad news: Only about two-thirds of American teenagers (and just half of all black, Latino and Native American teens) graduate with a regular diploma four years after they enter high school.
Now the worse news: Of those who graduate, only about half read well enough to succeed in college.
Don't even bother to ask how many are proficient enough in math and science to handle college-level work. It's not pretty.
Of all the factors combining to shape the future of the U.S., this is one of the most important. Millions of American kids are not even making it through high school in an era in which a four-year college degree is becoming a prerequisite for achieving (or maintaining) a middle-class lifestyle.
The Program for International Assessment, which compiles reports on the reading and math skills of 15-year-olds, found that the U.S. ranked 24th out of 29 nations surveyed in math literacy. The same result for the U.S. - 24th out of 29 - was found when the problem-solving abilities of 15-year-olds were tested.
If academic performance were an international athletic event, spectators would be watching American kids falling embarrassingly behind in a number of crucial categories. A new report from a pair of Washington think tanks - the Center for American Progress and the Institute for America's Future - says an urgent new commitment to public education, much stronger than the No Child Left Behind law, must be taken if that slide is to be reversed.
This would not be a minor task. In much of the nation the public education system is in shambles. And the kids who need the most help - poor children from inner cities and rural areas - often attend the worst schools.
An education task force established by the center and the institute noted the following: ''Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting. By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students. Across the nation, only 15 percent of low-income fourth graders achieved proficiency in reading in 2003, compared to 41 percent of non-poor students.''
How's that for a disturbing passage? Not only is the picture horribly bleak for low-income and minority kids, but we find that only 41 percent of non-poor fourth graders can read proficiently.
I respectfully suggest that we may be looking at a crisis here.
The report, titled ''Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer,'' restates a point that by now should be clear to most thoughtful Americans: Too many American kids are ill equipped educationally to compete successfully in an ever-more competitive global environment.
Cartoonish characters like Snoop Dogg and Paris Hilton may be good for a laugh, but they're useless as role models. It's the kids who are logging long hours in the college labs, libraries and lecture halls who will most easily remain afloat in the tremendous waves of competition that have already engulfed large segments of the American work force.
The report makes several recommendations. It says the amount of time that children spend in school should be substantially increased by lengthening the school day and, in some cases, the school year. It calls for the development of voluntary, rigorous national curriculum standards in core subject areas and a consensus on what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school.
The report also urges, as many have before, that the nation take seriously the daunting (and expensive) task of getting highly qualified teachers into all classrooms. And it suggests that an effort be made to connect schools in low-income areas more closely with the surrounding communities. (Where necessary, the missions of such schools would be extended to provide additional services for children whose schooling is affected by such problems as inadequate health care, poor housing or a lack of parental support.) The task force's recommendations are points of departure that can be discussed, argued about and improved upon by people who sincerely want to ramp up the quality of public education in the U.S. What is most important about the report is the fact that it sounds an alarm about a critical problem that is not getting nearly enough serious attention.
Bob Herbert writes for The New York Times.

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