Almost a third of American youth fail high school every year, and the majority are from poor communities and populations of people of color, according to Colin Greer, president of the nonprofit New World Foundation, which believes that “global and national social change begins at the local level.”

Nearly 50 percent of African-American and Hispanic young people ever graduate from high school, Greer notes.

Nationwide, furthermore, half of everyone eligible to attend college ever does. Of that number, only 50 percent ever actually graduate from college. Since the inception of free public schools, this rate of failure has remained fairly constant.

“We’re not talking about getting a few more kids into college, but about a serious structural problem that requires a serious structural analysis of the causes,” asserts Greer.

In his opinion, reforming schools does not call for focusing on national standards; creating punitive testing and funding formulas tied up with financial rewards to teachers and students, or expanding charter schools that are free of union representation.

As many education reformers have contended for decades, Greer thinks that a more direct and individualized approach to students and children is needed to best help them succeed in our society.

Smaller classrooms are key. It is common sense that an instructor with 10 students in a classroom can be more effective than one with 40.

How many times have we heard stories about young people who grew up in socially and economically deprived environments but have nonetheless achieved monumental goals because of the inspiration of “one teacher”? Even the charter schools developed in the early ’90s (which also receive public funding in many cases) have been more effective because of reduced class sizes.

So-called school-based service learning and post-college national service programs have been widely viewed as a step in the right direction for creating learning experiences that work.

“A community can help provide what a parent cannot,” says Greer. “We can mobilize kids in their local communities in ways that affect their school experience and (also) enrich their communities.”

He and many other educators believe that forging a connection between teacher, parents, students and community is vital to a student’s achieving fulfilling academic success.

In a service-learning model, young people can learn skills, learn about learning itself and apply that knowledge to both their academic and community lives. They are also more likely to be perceived as valuable to adults close to their home base.

“Youngsters have learned to blame themselves for their failure and that the promise of success through education is offered as a personal challenge to escape rather than to serve and rebuild community,” Greer says.

Students are individuals who are attending school to acquire useful knowledge, no matter what kind of home they come from or the level of education of their parents.

When they fall short on achievement tests and don’t reach graduation standards, the school system has failed.

Yes, schools today have a tremendous responsibility, but it remains their obligation to teach, train, enlighten and cultivate their students. Otherwise, find another job.

Yes, parents need to work with schools to ensure that their children receive a worthwhile educational experience.

Yes, there are apathetic, incompetent, tradition-oriented educators and school administrators out there.

And, yes, there are many people who believe that our kids are too disillusioned to see any value in an education. But to completely dismantle existing school structures can only be self-defeating for everyone.

There is plenty of blame to go around in America’s failed education system, but when the job of the teacher is too closely tied to pay scales, pensions, vacation time and test score results, the teacher is less motivated to teach.

Our schools can do a better job if they have the ability to give more time to each student’s individual needs, such as those struggling with disabilities or who are English language learners.

One size does not fit all. Tests, private or corporate-based school alternatives and scholarships alone are simply not enough to make our education system more valuable to all.

Most of the time students spend in school is spent sitting in one place, being compelled to listen to their instructor. This can make them feel useless in a real world that exists outside the classroom setting.

What all students need — whether in elementary, high school, college or adult education classes — is a good teacher.

And a good teacher does more than merely explain and demonstrate. Good teachers inspire, but they can accomplish that only if they are respected and allowed to work in an environment that supports the entire community they work in.


Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book, “The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast, ” is due for publication this year. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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