Take Five: Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise talks about high school woes | St. Louis Public Radio

Take Five: Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise talks about high school woes

Apr 16, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise is on a mission. He wants to see every high school student graduate, ready to succeed. The author of "Raising the Grade: How High School Reform Can Save Our Youth and Our Nation," Wise is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which pushes for reforms in secondary education. We caught up with him at Webster University where he spoke Tuesday.

What’s the state of public education in Missouri and the nation?

The most pressing problem? One-third of our kids won’t graduate from high school and another third will not be prepared for college or the workplace. It has taken the country a long time to realize the magnitude of this problem.

In Missouri, more than 19,000 students did not graduate from high school in 2007. This translates into a lifetime loss of $5 billion in earnings for the dropouts. In St. Louis, if you turned a thousand dropouts into graduates, you’d add $20 million to the economy in payroll alone. In other words, if you cut the dropout rate substantially, it would be the equivalent of bringing an auto plant to St. Louis.

What can we do to fix this problem?

We need to target the lowest performing middle and high schools and upgrade the curriculum to international standards. We need to recognize that my high school was designed in the 19th century with a curriculum that doesn’t meet the needs of the 21st century.

In education, we have a one-size-fits-all system. We need to create more personalized plans by identifying each child’s needs and target specific interventions to address those needs. One child may need extra help in reading; another may face math difficulties.

We also need to give teachers and principals the ability to be effective educators. They not only need good compensation, but they need mentoring. In addition, we need to make it possible for high-performing teachers to be assigned to low-performing classrooms.

In Missouri, for example, just under 92 percent of secondary classes in poor schools are taught by highly qualified teachers. But in low-poverty schools, over 98 percent of classes are taught by highly qualified teachers.

So, is money the reason we don’t do better in educating all children?

Most federal spending for education is targeted at early childhood and higher education. Very little goes to middle and secondary education. At the federal level, we spend $79 a student in K through 3rd grade, but only $1.22 a student in 7th through 12th grades.

(The theory was) that if we built a good foundation by spending on early childhood education, the students would do the rest, in terms of knowing how to read and do math. It’s like building a house. You can build a good foundation, but it doesn’t mean the students will be able to build the home.

I don’t disagree with the commitment on the early years. But we aren’t doing nearly enough for the middle level. Put another way, we spend about $18 billion in pre-K through 6th grade and another $16 billion in post-secondary assistance through the Pell grant and other programs. But we spend only about $2.5 billion each in aid for students in middle school and high school. We get what we pay for.

So what do we get?

First we get kids who are unable to compete with students in other developed nations. Almost 30 percent of our high school students read several years below grade level.

Missouri is doing slightly better than the national average in terms of 8th graders reading at grade level: 44 percent in Missouri versus 43 percent nationally. But Missouri, like other states, has a big gap. Forty-nine percent of African American 8th graders and 42 percent of Latino 8th graders read below grade level. For white 8th graders, the number is 18 percent. The state average for Missouri is 25 percent, and the national average is 28 percent.

The first step is to get a diploma, but make sure that the diploma means something. It’s revealing that many students with high school diplomas have to go to community colleges and take remedial courses. That’s a sign that we didn’t get it right the first time.

One effective way to get it right the first time is to target the lowest performing high schools and turn them around. A second way is to expand the Striving Reader program, which helps the two-thirds of eighth graders nationwide who read below grade level. The program now serves only eight school districts nationwide?

Wasn’t No Child Left Behind supposed to take care of those problems?

It's been beneficial. Because of it, we know a lot more about students than we knew before. It helped everyone focus on whether students were doing well, which were achieving and which were not. What the law didn’t do is give us adequate means to deal with the problems. The law doesn’t focus enough on the issue of graduation rates. It mandates testing, but it doesn’t focus on graduation. That’s like putting students in a race, testing them but never bothering to see who finishes. We need to care who finishes.