In April 1983, the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education, a special commission appointed by the secretary of Education, conducted an in-depth analysis of the state of American education and revealed their conclusions in one of the most memorable titles of a government report ever: “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.”
As governors and business leaders who serve on the board of Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), a national organization that has always operated on a bipartisan basis and has served more than 1.5 million of the nation’s most vulnerable youth over 40 years, we are compelled to report that the nation, once again, is at great risk of losing a critical part of our next generation. This generation will already be numbered among the smallest in our history, and our economy and our country urgently need them all.
The learning loss and student disengagement across America is far broader and deeper than one might imagine. As this is written, many school systems are making final decisions on how to measure student disengagement, dropouts and learning loss. Their reports will be forthcoming over the next several weeks. We know from our work in 1,500 locations in 40 states—from the most urban to the most rural—that the scale of learning loss and disengagement is truly frightening. This conclusion is supported by June and July reports from McKinsey & Co., in which McKinsey measured the impact to be a half-year of learning loss in math and English overall. Some of our most vulnerable youth, including youth of color and youth from low-income families, have lost as much as two-thirds of a school year, or even more in some places.
The learning loss is of national scale. It will take years to overcome, if we are able to restore it. Of equal concern is students’ disengagement from the school system at a massive scale. Michigan has been honest enough to disclose that the K-12 system lost contact with 37 percent of the school children in their system at various points last year. In Detroit, the number was a stunning 48 percent. The superintendent of schools in Dallas has also been straightforward in reporting last spring that they had “lost contact” with 50 percent of their seniors—seniors, who are within eyesight of graduation but could not be found. Multiple estimates tell us 4-6 million more youth than usual have dropped out of school.
In a remarkable twist of fate, it is also true that the economy has been so strong in its recovery that it has attracted many youth to jobs that pay $15-20 per hour with 401(k), health care and tuition benefits—potentially better jobs than they would have secured in previous years with a full high school diploma. For many of the youth our organization serves, work has been a necessity to keep their families in place with shelter and food during the depths of the pandemic, with over 30 million people unemployed in 2020 for much of the year.
The obvious question is, “What do we do about it?”
If there is any good news, it is that we do know how to help even the most vulnerable youth succeed in school, work, post-secondary education—and life. Jobs for America’s Graduates has 40 years of experience, as we have noted, and achieved remarkable outcomes through the pandemic across our 1,500 locations, from the inner cities of Detroit, St. Louis, Phoenix and New York to the most rural parts of Montana, Nevada, the Mississippi Delta and Native American reservations. The evidence is compelling that, properly organized and executed, with well-prepared and highly engaged staff, we can achieve truly extraordinary results.
Jobs for America’s Graduates’ most recent results, collected on May 31 at the conclusion of 12 months of follow-up services to our graduates, who were derived from the lowest-performing 40 percent of the population, makes that case. After our 12 months of follow-up services, at the very height of the pandemic, the JAG Class of 2020, achieved the following results:
—A graduation rate of 96.7 percent—the best in our history.
—Employment rate: 64 percent—the best ever.
—Full-time jobs: 82 percent—the best ever.
—Further education rate: 40.49 percent—up from last year while enrollments in higher education were down 10 percent nationally.
—Full-time placement: 92 percent (percentage of employed JAG graduates with full-time placement in jobs, college, the military or some combination) once again, the highest ever.
In Louisiana and Iowa, we have witnessed the extraordinary impact this program can have on the lives and futures of entire families, schools and communities.
On the JAG website, you can read our Top 10 Lessons Learned, which have been the key components in helping our people at the front lines achieve the outcomes noted above, drawn from the many decades of working with underserved and challenged youth. These lessons demonstrate what it takes to create sustained and consistent success.
Certainly, the future of the nation rests on the futures of millions of America’s youth who are now gravely at risk. Their futures will depend on the sustained leadership and commitment of government, schools and the private sector to come together around solutions that have been proven to work at scale and over time—and then doing more of what works on a long-term and sustained basis. Demonstration projects and small-scale efforts are wonderful. However, the risk we are facing as a nation calls for truly large-scale and highly coordinated public and private sector engagements that bring to bear the very best of “what works.”
The federal government has provided states, local governments and schools with an extraordinary amount of new funding to help mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, especially for education. We, therefore, do have the resources to take to scale what works and keep it there as we try to mitigate and overcome the worst damage to the American education system in history.
You can be certain that Jobs for America’s Graduates, with the 14 governors serving on our board, along with a range of national corporate and community leaders, stands ready to share our experience in what works. We are ready to help in any way we can with both the design and execution of the mitigation strategies, based on what we know works.
Buried in these challenges is the clear opportunity to “Build Back Better,” (in the words of President Joe Biden) our schools and educational systems and to better focus education on readiness for work since, to paraphrase the words of President Ronald Reagan, “The best social program is a job.” The economy needs all our young people like never before.
It is up to all of us in both the public and private sectors. We have the money. We have proven ways to help youth succeed. The remaining question is, will we connect those dots to do what works at enough scale to meet the need?
Governor John Bel Edwards (D-La.) and Governor Kim Reynolds (R-Iowa) participate on the board of Jobs for America’s Graduates, an organization helping young people of truly great promise succeed both in school and on-the-job, leading to productive and rewarding careers.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.