Executive Perspective

An Alliance Model for Boosting Our Youth

by Daniel A. Domenech

The era of No Child Left Behind perhaps will be best remembered for the focus on reading in the early grades. The greater portion of the federal dollars allocated to the program was spent on Reading First.

Dan_Domenech.jpgDaniel A. Domenech

Unfortunately, a report released by the White House in November indicated no significant differences could be found in the reading scores obtained under Reading First and those obtained by children who did not participate in the program. The program also was marred by accusations that some of the consultants used by Reading First doubled as creators of materials purchased by school districts receiving Reading First funds.

The lack of statistically significant gains by Reading First students does not bring to a satisfactory conclusion the so-called reading wars between proponents of phonics-based reading instruction and whole language advocates. If a lesson is to be learned here, it is that the federal government should not prescribe how subjects should be taught in our schools. Such prescription should be left to the educators at the school level, where the unique needs of the students can be addressed employing the pedagogy that will best work for them.

Powell’s Priority
Ironically, No Child Left Behind has left millions of students behind. While the program emphasized early instruction in reading and math, insufficient attention was paid to the students at the secondary level. Consequently, as many as 7,000 students drop out of school on any given school day. In a country that places a great deal of focus on college readiness and school attendance, more than 30 percent of our students fail to complete high school. The problem is even more pronounced among our African-American and Hispanic youth, as well as among students from lower-income families, where graduation rates barely reach 50 percent.

At a time when the world and the United States in particular struggle with economic issues of unprecedented proportions, we can ill afford to ignore our dropout crisis. We are familiar with the consequences of an uneducated workforce. Dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty and eight times more likely to wind up in prison.

In the Nov. 20 issue of Roll Call, an inside the Washington beltway publication, former Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the issue directly: “Put simply, to move forward as a nation, the 111th Congress must put our children first. This means taking a fresh look at our priorities and ensuring that all children have quality health care, an excellent education and the necessary services to help lift them out of poverty. … It means raising awareness of children’s issues and sending a message that our economic future depends on our commitment to investing in our children.”

As the founding chairman of America’s Promise, General Powell and his lovely wife, Alma, have forged an alliance of leaders from corporations, education and other youth-serving organizations, foundations, advocacy organizations, and faith groups working collaboratively to ensure children receive the resources needed to succeed. AASA is an alliance partner.

Last September, America’s Promise recognized the 100 Best Communities for Young People. These are communities nationwide where alliance partners have come together to support the schools and achieve better outcomes for children and youth. As an alliance trustee, I was invited to participate in the national forum last fall in Washington, D.C. I was impressed by the number of organizations assembled there, all pledging their support to help overcome the dropout crisis.

At the event, I met Amy Sichel, superintendent of the Abington School District in Abington, Pa., which was honored as one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People. She was there with a team from her community, grateful to be receiving so much support from community-based agencies.

Coordinated Effort
This is a model that can work. For too long, educators have felt that the school alone cannot solve the problems confronting our youth. AASA has crafted a position on the reauthorization of Title I that focuses on the education of the total child and closely aligns with what Powell says in his Roll Call commentary.

The focus on poverty is critical. The evidence linking poverty with low student achievement is overwhelming. Consequently, federal dollars, limited as they are, should be focused on schools with high concentrations of low-income students. Furthermore, the health issues that affect low-income students from conception through their years in school contribute to poor academic performance.
Regardless of the valiant efforts that dedicated teachers will exert in the classroom, the school cannot do it alone. A collaborative and coordinated effort among all segments of the community has the best chance of succeeding in the education of the total child.

At the meeting of the alliance trustees, I reminded my fellow trustees that, as much as they may graciously perceive the dropout issue to be a community crisis, responsibility and accountability continue to fall squarely on the shoulders of the school superintendent. The most recent regulations adopted by the U.S. Department of Education now include graduation rates, and yet another series of cells wherein schools and districts can fail to achieve adequate yearly progress.

At AASA, we strongly suggest that the new administration suspend these regulations. Although the focus on high school graduation rates is welcomed, the regulations promulgate the previous administration’s penchant for penalizing schools for failing to achieve inadequately funded and improperly formulated measures of accountability.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org