Where Does the Student Optimism Go?

By now, we’ve all heard the gory details.  One third of all students will drop out of high school.  Nearly half of all students in our inner-city schools will drop out.  Minority and low-income students have half the opportunity to learn as white, non-Latino students.  Ninety percent of newly created jobs will require postsecondary education, but only a third of today’s ninth graders will secure a postsecondary degree.  

These are the statistics that the adults managing our education system provide us.  Today, Gallup, along with the America’s Promise Alliance and AASA, provide us a close look at what students in the United States are thinking.  Surveying more than 70,000 students in grades five through 12 in 18 states and the District of Columbia, on topics such as dropout prevention and college readiness.  The results may surprise you:
* More than a third of students are “struggling or suffering”
* Half of students are “not hopeful”
* A third of students feel “stuck”
* 94 percent of students say they will graduate from high school
* 86 percent of students believe there is a good job waiting for them after high school
Eduflack finds the dichotomy between the views on the present and the future to be the most interesting.  Living in the current, students are focused on the negative, feeling stuck, not hopeful, and generally cynical about their current experiences.  Just half of students say there were treated with respect on the day surveyed.  When it comes to the qualitative of now, students are just as negative and cynical as the rest of us.
But in looking ahead, in looking at life after high school, these same students seem transform into bluebirds of happiness and optimism.  They all see high school diplomas in their future, despite the statistics that one in three will drop out.  And nearly as many believe there is a good job waiting for them after high school, at a time when even graduates from our top colleges and graduate schools can’t find gainful employment.
Why the difference?  Over the years, Eduflack has spent a lot of time conducting interviews and focus groups with high school students about their futures.  In general, today’s students do not enjoy their high school experience.  They are bored by the classes, feel disrespected by many teachers, and generally worry about what opportunities may come next.  But they follow through because they want to believe there is a positive at the end of the path.  They persevere because they believe there is a payout at the end of the game.
What’s likely missing from this survey sample are those youth for whom reality has set in — those who have already dropped out of high school.  The survey is likely heavy on middle schoolers, and light on high schoolers.  Thus the optimism about the future and the hopes for a high school diploma and a good job.  The current struggles are indicative of today’s middle schoolers, many of whom are starting to think about dropping out as a viable alternative to continuing their education.
So the big question is how we bridge the hope to the reality?  If 94 percent of students believe they will graduate, how do we get to the nearly 30 percent that will change their minds before earning that diploma?  For those 86 percent who believe they have a good job waiting for them, how do we get nearly half of them to realize that a good job requires postsecondary education?  How do we transform the optimism for the future into achievement today?  How do we get all students to feel a sense of hope and a right to opportunity?  How do we do better?
Call me mister negativity, but Gallup’s data points should be a wake-up call to all of those who think we have righted the ship.  We have fathoms to travel before we reach our destination.  It is good that students are hopeful, even if they are facing harsh realities today.  But at some point, we need to transform that hope into real action.  We need to fulfill the promise we have made to every student, that if they work hard and stay in school, success is in their grasp.  Otherwise, those struggling, stuck, and hopeless students become similarly distraught adults.  And we all know the effect that has on our economy, society, and nation.

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