Article published in The Chicago Sun Times
The number of high school dropouts is reaching crisis proportions. Today, nearly half of all blacks and Latinos fail to graduate.
Dropouts earn about $260,000 less over the course of their lives. They’re 72 percent more likely to be unemployed. Among prisoners, 80 percent don’t have a high school degree.
The National Education Association just issued a much-ballyhooed 12-point plan to eradicate this problem. But don’t hold your breath. The misguided plan is more about shifting resources to the NEA’s power base than doing what it takes to ensure that more students will finish school.
First and foremost, the plan calls for $10 billion in additional spending to make ”high school graduation a federal priority.” The funds would certainly benefit the NEA and its allies, but are unlikely to improve results for students. Federal education spending has already more than doubled since 2001. And numerous studies have been unable to find a relationship between increased spending and better performance.
In fact, the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek found that when a school is underperforming, extra money is usually wasted.
The NEA would also make it illegal to quit school before 21. But the time to prevent dropouts is early in a child’s education — before they fall through the cracks. Once a student is old enough to vote, smoke and serve in Iraq, it’s awfully late to transform him into a model high school student.
Moreover, the NEA’s other policy prescriptions — increased community involvement, education centers for students 19 to 21 years old, workforce readiness programs — seem destined to become just more failed federal programs. What we need is better results, not more bureaucracy.
The truth is that we already know what works. And the NEA has stood steadfastly against real reform.
Look at accountability, which is the cornerstone of the No Child Left Behind Act. Rather than rely on standardized test scores, NEA leaders have sought to muddle the picture using fuzzy evaluations, portfolio assessments and other inexact measures. The fact is that schools should be required to demonstrate success.
But the NEA derides testing, and not one of its 12 points for curing dropouts would increase accountability.
If the NEA’s leaders really want to help students at risk of dropping out of chronically underperforming schools, it would offer them the opportunity to transfer to a school of choice. Study after study has demonstrated that it boosts student achievement in both public and private schools, regardless of socioeconomic background.
In Florida, for example, students can use vouchers to switch out of ”failing” schools. As a result, public schools have responded positively to the danger of losing students. According to the Manhattan Institute’s Jay Greene, ”Failing schools that faced the prospect of vouchers made improvements that were nearly twice as large as the gains displayed by other schools in the state.” And when schools succeed, students are not only less likely to drop out, but more likely to continue on to college.
With such evidence in hand, the National Research Council issued a report during the Clinton administration recommending that the government fund a large-scale school choice experiment. But the NEA’s leadership has adamantly opposed school choice — not because it would harm students, but because the NEA fears it would divert money into less unionized schools.
Performance-based pay is another example of the NEA’s obstructionism standing in the way of better education results. In inner-city schools, the best teachers often leave for better salaries, nicer neighborhoods, and less-stressful work. Merit pay, however, makes it possible for these schools to retain good teachers.
In all fairness, the NEA is right about one thing: It’s imperative for our public schools to provide disadvantaged students with skills they need to graduate. But now that we all recognize the dropout problem, it’d be nice if the NEA used its considerable influence to support a plan that is more likely to actually get results.
David White is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute, a public policy research organization based in Arlington, Va.
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