Our Public Schools Are Crippling the Economy

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By Philippe Dauman

America’s public schools are failing.

From the smallest towns to the biggest cities, our schools aren’t delivering the tools that young people need in today’s economy. Many kids simply aren’t finishing school. And too many who do graduate are unprepared for college and the working world. Comprehensive reform is needed.

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There are plenty of signs that there’s something wrong with the status quo. Over 7,000 students drop out every day—that’s about 1.2 million students each year. The national high school graduation rate, around 73 percent, is lower than it was 40 years ago.

Students couldn’t be quitting school at a worse time. Technology is catapulting us forward. Jobs are increasingly complex. According to the federal government, more than half of all new jobs in the next five years will require some college. Only about 30 percent of low-income young Americans go on to earn any kind of degree or certificate after finishing high school.

But simply reducing the dropout rate won’t make things better. Getting a high school diploma is no longer a guarantee that someone is ready for college.

More than one third of America’s college students require remedial classes to learn what they should have learned in high school. Roughly 60 percent of students at community colleges have to take some remedial classes before they can pursue their degree.

These extra courses cost taxpayers, students, and parents about $2 billion annually. And businesses now spend substantial amounts of time and money teaching employees what they should have learned in school.

To produce the next generation of workers, we must improve our schools.
Lawmakers have the most important role to play. They could start by looking at ways to change the way teachers are taught and recruited. They should also consider restructuring the teacher-student relationship. Perhaps students and teachers should stay together for multiple years.

Raising state standards will also help. One idea that’s gaining traction is the creation of a uniform roadmap from primary school to high school, so that once a student receives a diploma, she would actually be able to continue onto college or smoothly transition into the workforce.

Nonprofits, too, can improve educational outcomes. Over the last decade, for example, the Millennium Scholars program from the Gates Foundation has provided 12,000 scholarships to promising low-income students. The result? About eight in 10 students receiving these funds graduate from college within five years.

The business community also has a role to play. Together with the Gates Foundation, Viacom has launched “Get Schooled,” a five-year initiative that creates a platform for corporate and community stakeholders to address the challenges facing the public education system.

American businesses must also find innovative ways to encourage today’s students to succeed. We need to make a habit of communicating with government leaders and educators on a regular basis. We can—and should—offer insights into how the world economy is evolving.

We can’t allow the nation’s students to be left behind. Our failure to produce a properly educated workforce today will cripple our ability to compete in the global arena tomorrow. The time to act is now.

Philippe Dauman is the president and CEO of Viacom. On Sept. 8 at 8 p.m., Viacom will be airing a 30-minute special on the rewards of education on all of its networks.


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