Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New Report Points to Need for More Urgent Action to Support At-Risk Students

I attended a Brookings Institution panel today that released the Future of Children Report which contained some unsurprising findings: "Today young adults take far longer to reach economic and social maturity than their contemporaries did five or six decades ago, taking longer to leave home, attain economic independence, marry, and form families of their own. In large part, this shift is attributable to the increased importance of higher education in today’s high-skilled workforce"

Students without a high school diploma or a year of college are at increased risk of becoming part of a permanent underclass that will grow in this country as we move from the old manufacturing to a service one economy. The R word however was not used in this session--it seemed people were reluctant to mention the record unemployment that is making it hard even for top graduate students from Ivy League universities find jobs let alone students denied such opportunities. One of the most lucid panel members discussing the report was Assistant Secretary Jane Oates who now as head of the US Department of Labor's Employment and Training administration emphasizes the need for clear career pathways that include industry recognized measures such as certifications. Assistant Secretary Oates decried the fact that in the past the federal government was just interested in whether students trained could gain a low wage job--today she argued a $10.00 hour entry level job is likely to be a dead end one that will not support a family. As our already under resourced education system is buffeted by new rounds of budget cuts it seems increasingly obvious that we need to make new arrangements to support our most at-risk students in this more hostile environment. Students at much earlier stages of their careers before they make the judgment that "school is not for them" and decide to drop out need to gain career exposure, need to see that their studies in school are relevant and need to grasp how much is needed to gain a chance at the new 21st century jobs.

If we don't help prepare our most vulnerable students in this way it is likely that we will see increased deterioration in terms of our inner cities, higher crime and more social pathologies. As the report recommends we need "to design and implement effective new programs to help young people in danger of dropping out of school complete their secondary education so that they are better prepared to take the next step, whether directly into the labor force, into military or other service, or into higher education.

There was a focus on the need for more rigorous evaluations of effective programs. This seems needed but it is likely that critics of the government role will do their job of finding small flaws and use the evaluations to cut or eliminate altogether funding for otherwise worthwhile programs. Clearly no one evaluates whether jails do any good and will laugh at you if you suggested that due to their high recidivism rate we shut them down.

It is imperative that given the high unemployment rate particularly in the inner city--that we take emergency action.

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