An Education article from the Blackstone Daily September-October 2004 Print Publication

Are We Educating All of Our Children? by Ellen Onorato

Apparently not, according to some local parents and a national expert who has researched and statistically analyzed a troubling trend cropping up around us. In recent months, Northeastern University's labor expert Paul Harrington has candidly spoken in Woonsocket and Upton about the growing plight of some of our youth, especially males, who are disengaging from the public educational system at record numbers. The white female seems stable and is soaring ahead often past high school to receive 156 bachelor or 135 associates degrees to every 100 of our white males.
    However, Massachusetts overall has seriously diminished its vast  lead as the nation's most highly educated workforce as other States make huge gains while we remain  stagnant, face brain drain emigration and lose research and development investment.  This is at a time when higher skills are demanded in the workforce, work security is very low and immigrants, in record numbers are commanding either high end employment as engineers,  managers or lower wage jobs - jobs that often teens would have performed.
    Though it is clear that Hispanic and black youths still need  to increase their educational involvement and attain higher degrees, their numbers continue to rise, albeit too slowly and at a lower rate than their white counterparts (17% vs. 29% United for a Fair Economy report. This article also does not speak to the declining funding at both public and private elite colleges that jeopardizes our students in poverty.) But the dramatic decline of the "white male" in the student body, both within the Blackstone Valley and in New England  should be sending alarm bells to all of us, whether we have children or not! 
    Society is interdependent as baby  boomers’ retirement funding  will already be challenged by a dwindling birth rate in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, 58.1 and 59.2 per thousand respectively compared to the national average of 67.5.
    Even more critical is the life and productivity of each young male, with increasing numbers drifting, disconnecting -  sometimes with  Playstation numbing any focus on productive citizenship. Professor Harrington’s extensive research found that the white rural, suburban and often affluent male is a growing part of this "idle youth" tag for 17-24 year olds.
    Some of  these young adults are  the most talented in their abilities, yet do not necessarily conform to a MCAS test based system or  a one size fits all standard. Though many of our youth are having success, a very  visible pattern has been witnessed in some of our most charming and even affluent communities. But has it really been noticed at all or have School Committees looked the other way while grappling with funding problems.
    The plight of our educators, caught in a standards based system  but not always engaging the broad spectrum of learners, must be a difficult and frustrating path. The pressure on school systems to "get those numbers up" trickles down to students, often unnoticed as no big deal. If disengaged students drop out, do the scores look better? Let’s hope that is not the goal. 
     Yet, are we putting our youth on a treadmill that's a one size fits all pact? For some, it seems we are. This is not to blame the system,  to minimize responsibility from those stuck with their fingers to XBox or to deny the harsh reality  of some  students struggling with a chaotic homelife.  But the clear pattern of statistics in the Spring 2004 New England Board of Higher Education quarterly, Connections, reflects our communities where a growing number of our youngsters are quietly slipping through the cracks and falling behind. There is a serious erosion of educational attainment, especially for males, in a global economy requiring more skills and education.
    Some of the "disengagement" starts early for our youngsters.  Huge growth impacts in the Valley, arguing towns frustrated with rising tax rates and lost landscapes, longtime teachers retiring and sometimes revolving principals or Superintendents are merely the visible symptoms of some turmoil altering the previously stable suburban/rural or even urban school systems throughout the Valley. Threats of litigation possibly limiting discipline, and the focus on tests rather than the time-consuming connections to each child gives weight to the complexity of solutions for educators.
    Significance placed on building self-esteem and parity  or using collective discipline stifling early leadership opportunities, or ignoring behavior and academic accountability is coupled with the hard reality that 40% of the U.S. student body is emotionally dependent on drugs such as Ritalin, Prozac or Dexedrin - a staggering statistic we all should be questioning! (NEBHE Summer 2004 Connections)
   Statistics show that high school dropouts earn less than half the income of college graduates  and are three times more likely to be unemployed. This affects all of us, though there are many less voters concerned with children’s issues as the birth rate slides.
     Brown University’s Assistant Professor John Tyler’s research  reinforces the worsening economic disadvantage of high school dropouts, though he asserts that the dropouts with early higher test scores do tend to gain a better payoff than those dropouts without the basic skills.
    Changing times, hectic lives, competition for having the best and most rather than an emphasis on principles and civic responsibility is out there - whether through the media or in one's own daily life.  But still, the root of the decline seems grounded in lost hopes, failed engagement or restricted parameters for alternative perceptions or learning styles.
    Our country’s revolutionary birth was predicated on independence and has excelled through innovation and hard work. Education has positively transformed from getting acess to demanding proficiency, but we must realize learning styles vary tremendously and we must ignite all of our children’s love of learning. 
    Granted, that is a huge task and investment, but the payoff is front end in a functional and productive society. The fiscal savings of a healthy and able workforce is necessary to preserve America’s leadership in a very dynamic world.
       There are many reasons for this increasing gap of attainment for our children. Certainly, it includes learning styles but goes far beyond to family life where both parents, if even intact,  are maxed out more than ever before providing a livable wage.
    Are we wanting too much materially? Or are we struggling in an economy whose rich keep getting richer while the middle class and poor are getting poorer? Who is watching our country’s 15 million children going home to an empty house every day? Research verifies that this often leads to a higher rate of experimentation of drugs or other risky behaviors. 
   Northeastern University’s Harrington stated that the Black- stone Valley is the sole region of Massachusetts without a community college. Should this be a concern or are Worcester and the R.I. community colleges close enough? The struggle for funding for higher education or even K-12 in Massachusetts and Rhode Island has faced stiff challenges and is far less than many other States in the nation. The demands and federal mandates grow with attached funding further straining community budgets.
    The first step to “plugging a hole” and fixing a problem is to identify it. While there are many successes in our communities and student bodies, we must recognize those who fall through the cracks and create/find solutions to keep them engaged. How many really graduate each year? Are we following up with our youth or barely struggling to keep up?
     There are wonderful “second chance” initiatives, intervention resources and teachers that repeatedly “connect” with these youths living on the edge, at least academically.
     There are initiatives throughout the Blackstone Valley which help: School to Career, Dual Enrollment (with a college), Job Corps, GED, private, parochial and alternative schools, School Choice (offered in some communities) and even the more affordable college option for specialty majors, the Apple program.
     We must be vigilant to assure that our youth have the support at home while being challenged and “plugged in” at  school to foster productive and well-educated citizens for our future.
    We need to question the overuse of drugs  when behavior accountability or allowing recess for sixth and even seventh graders might be a better option. There certainly is not one solution for the complex landscape of concerns. Yet, we must take ownership, as parents, as educators , administrators and community members to provide resources that engage all of our kids. Then, we must expect our children to rise to the challenge.



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