By Lou Dobbs
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- America's once-proud public school system -- the great equalizer of our democratic society -- is failing an entire generation of students. Millions of high-school students are donning their caps and gowns this month, but a new Education Week report reveals that more than 1.2 million students will fail to graduate high school this year. Half of our black and Hispanic male students are dropping out of public high schools.
Nowhere is the news for our young people worse than in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit's economy has been devastated by so-called free trade policies and awful management decisions. Tens of thousands of jobs are disappearing, and too many mothers and fathers have never attended a parent-teacher conference. Detroit's community is in pain, and the city's future is uncertain. And despite the best efforts of local and state leaders, hope is in short supply.
The Education Week report shows Detroit's public high schools will graduate only 25 percent of their students. Cleveland, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland, will graduate less than 35 percent; Dallas, Texas, New York and Los Angeles, California, about 45 percent. In fact, 10 of our nation's biggest cities will graduate fewer than half their students. This is nothing less than a national crisis.
Christopher Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center and supervisor of that national dropout rate report says: "I think that really speaks to the challenge of getting students to graduate from high school at a time where it's more important than it's ever been...to provide opportunities for our young people to have a successful career and for the United States in general to be competitive in the world."
The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that each high school dropout earns about $260,000 less than a high school graduate over his or her lifetime. The Alliance also reports that dropouts not only earn less money but also drain state and federal budgets through their dependence on social and welfare programs. Those students who drop out make up nearly half the heads of households on welfare, and they constitute almost half of our prison population as well. The cost to our society is overwhelming.
But even our students who are graduating are often not receiving the education they deserve. In low-income schools, students have less than a 50 percent chance of being taught by a mathematics or science teacher who holds a degree in the subject he or she teaches, according to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. This explains at least in part why less than a third of our fourth-grade and eighth-grade students performed at or above a proficient level in math, and why American 15-year-olds fall below the international average in mathematics literacy and problem-solving in the Program for International Student Assessment.
A recent Business-Higher Education Forum report highlights the dire need for mathematics and science teachers at the middle school and high school levels. That report projects a national shortfall of more than 280,000 math and science teachers by 2015. The group recommends creating a comprehensive package of incentives including scholarships, signing bonuses and differential pay to attract these teachers.
But solutions to our national crisis are meager and untested, and the public school students we're failing diminish America's future.
George W. Bush is searching for a legacy, and I know where he can find it. Head to Detroit right now, Mr. President, and assert real leadership. Bring to bear every resource of this nation to urgently restore our nation's public schools to excellence and success. You could not achieve a greater legacy.
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