Superintendent of California’s Oakland Unified School District Tony Smith has a dream — that education policy gets more attention during the upcoming presidential debates than it did during the debates four years ago. Writing in the Huffington Post, Smith remembers that only one education-related question was ever asked of the candidates during the 2008 debates, and it was during the closing minutes of the very last meeting before the election.
This lack of attention made it seem like education wasn’t a priority for Senator John McCain, Senator Barack Obama or the nation, whose views the moderators were supposed to be representing. So this time around, those in charge of putting together the questions should be prepared to ask, and demand an answer to, how each candidate proposes to make sure that American kids don’t just graduate high school but do so prepared for college and the workforce.
That question cuts to the core of whether we really have equal opportunity for education and employment. In this ultra-competitive economy, workers need not only high school diplomas but at least two more years of career training or higher education. But 7.4 percent of 16-24-year-olds, including eight percent of African Americans and 15.1 percent of Hispanics, have been pushed out or dropped out of high school.
Those who think that education should take second place to economics this election don’t realize how inextricably linked these issues are, says Smith. Without the ability to turn out college-ready graduates, the U.S. economy will struggle to fill its employment needs. Recent numbers released by an Urban Strategies Council study show that there’s plenty of room for improvement in that area — and especially among minority students. Currently, less than half of African-American students in urban schools are on track to graduate high school on time, with a more than a third considered “off course.”
The study showed that neighborhood poverty and violence were significantly related to whether young men were “at-risk” or “off-course.” Chronic absence, suspensions, low academic performance, and health problems were warning signs. These problems are traced to multi-generational poverty, and suggested the need for adequate health care and quality after-school programs.
Nothing will change until the politicians in charge of shaping education policy are forced to account for it to the voters. Those who fail to graduate high school will earn $630,000 less during their lifetime than their peers who got a diploma, and Smith contends that a coherent plan for improving America’s schools is the first step to reducing the number of kids who are disadvantaged. The first step is to let go of the mind-set that one political party has all the answers to the problem of academics, and consider, adopt or discard each approach based on its merits rather than on which side of the party divide it happened to originate.
Our experience in Oakland offers some lessons. With some 70 percent (2) of Oakland’s students coming from low-income households, problems such as unemployment, poverty, crime, gangs, drugs and disease don’t stop at the schoolhouse doors. Understanding these social determinants of health is why we’re transforming Oakland Unified into a “community school district,” with social and emotional support services that care for children not only as pupils but as whole people, including healthcare, dental and eye care, nutrition, recreation and before-school and after-school programs.