In every corner of the U.S., big-league cities shouldering unemployment rates near or higher than the national 9.5 percent rate need an economic shot in the arm. In Atlanta, the jobless rate has soared to 9.8 percent. In New York the rate stands at 9.4 percent, and in Chicago, it’s at 10.7 percent and counting. These sobering figures represent no less than a percentage-point increase from a year ago. And in Philadelphia, the rate is climbing even faster—to 9 percent compared to 7.5 percent at this time last year.
This isn’t the first major downturn in our economy and it won’t be the last. But we can minimize the damage if we invest now in the long-term future of our children. A high school diploma is a prerequisite for success in our country, and helping more young people experience success is certainly a requirement for economic viability.
Unfortunately, far too many of our young people miss the chance to don a graduation cap—because expectations are low, because not every student has access to an effective teacher, and because the way achievement data are collected and reported leaves some communities and decision makers in the dark.
In Atlanta, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia alone, nearly 40,000 African American students failed to graduate with their peers in the class of 2008. If that number were cut in half, the positive difference it would make in our economy cannot be ignored. Their collective earning power would increase by an additional $267.9 million and they’d spend $186.8 million more than they would without a diploma, much of it in their hometowns.
These figures are an accurate reflection of the national picture: If only half of the estimated 600,000 students who dropped out in 2008 had graduated, this single class of new graduates would likely earn as much as $4.1 billion in additional income, and they’d spend an additional $2.8 billion to pump up the country’s economy.
But graduation rates remain far too low and may only decline. Of all incoming ninth-graders, a staggering one-third will drop out, and another third will graduate without the skills they need to succeed in college and the business world. The figures are even more alarming for our young people. Only about half of African American students graduate from high school on time with a regular diploma and prepared for college, work and life.
Today, states need only to achieve their own set of annual standards to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, too many states lowered their standards, creating what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has aptly called a “race to the bottom.” Employers and college professors now say young people simply aren’t leaving high school with the stuff they need to succeed. Getting a diploma often isn’t enough, because four out of 10 high school graduates lack the literacy skills that employers need.
The moral and economic imperative to reverse these negative trends is clear, but before leaders in education will see improvements they must engage African American families and the community in conversations about what’s needed to solve this crisis. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, a state-led nationwide effort that is directly addressing low expectations and poor outcomes, is one avenue to improve results. It’s a voluntary effort to establish a single set of clear, high academic standards for all schools. But it will only be effective if the needs of our students are front of mind as the standards are adopted and implemented. And then their benefits must be connected to efforts to bring an effective teacher to every classroom and to use accurate data to identify and address challenges.
African Americans and other students of color are disproportionately impacted by low academic standards. High common standards will ensure that all students regardless of their zip code, family income, or race will be held to the same high expectations, expectations that will prepare them to succeed at work and contribute to our global economy. Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois are all considering the adoption and implementation of common core state standards this year, which is a step toward solving the economic and educational crises these states are facing.
As these states approach this goal, African Americans must make their voices heard. It’s the best way to ensure that our children will not only graduate from high school, but will go on to enjoy many successes in college and life. And, given the amount of capital they’ll then infuse into the economy, we’ll all live better as a result.
Michael T. S. Wotorson is executive director of the Campaign for High School Equity.