The Solution to America’s Foremost Problem

In the book, The Coming Jobs War, Jim Clifton explains a fundamental problem in America. The high schools have been attempting to solve the high school dropout problem basically by themselves with very little success. Clifton jumps out of the box and explains that it isn’t exclusively a schools problem, but it is a whole city problem. He doesn’t mean just the city administration. He has a much broader perspective, a more inclusive idea. He means the city administration, the school board, parent organizations, community organizations, labor, and business. He really means the entire community. This perspective is very different than the present isolated high schools with principals who have never worked outside of the schools. The high school leadership is truly focused exclusively on college preparation with no thought of the average or below average kids and what might constitute an appropriate education for them. They literally don’t care about the average or low achieving youngsters or what happens to them when they leave high school.

Clifton’s whole city idea represents an enormous shift in thinking. It proposes an enormous change in American culture. This broader responsibility for the high schools really means school boards must share their power with mayors and city council members and include others in their planning. The reality is that this is necessary because school board’s isolation has caused them to develop an exclusively elitist curriculum. It is time to face the reality that today’s high school to prison pipeline is totally unacceptable. This school system has refused to look at what happens to the kids when they leave high school. This academic elitism has had terrible consequences. There are a million high school dropouts every year. Seventy percent of the 2.5 million in prison are high school dropouts as are the additional 4.5 million on parole and probation. The recidivism rate is 70 percent. The high schools are directly responsible for gangs, prostitution, crime and sending young people to prison. Yes, the high schools are responsible for these awful outcomes, but the reality is they don’t know it. The ignorance of what they have caused is largely due to their isolation away from cities, police, and the criminal justice system. It is time to connect them. Mayors and city council members must become directly involved in their high schools.

It is time to use the prospect of getting a job to motivate students to stay in high school. This motivation of getting a job means being paid and valued by society. This new norm of being paid and being valued is a titanic shift from high schools that only value college prep students and academic learning. Average and below average students have little interest in these college prep courses. These courses are frequently abstract in their curricula and offer little to motivate the supermajority of students, many of whom cannot handle the complex coursework. This is the 70 percent of American students who will not graduate from college.

When people outside of the high schools become involved, they see Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan require their average and lower achieving student to take a multiple year program in career technical education. This whole city involvement can create a broad communitywide commitment to supporting high school career technical education. Overtime, this change would put young people to work in a systematic basis and they will become role models for the young people behind them. These young people will become a skilled workforce necessary in America’s future, but more significantly, they will no longer join gangs, sell drugs, use drugs, prostitute themselves, and end up in prison. The brilliance of Clifton’s idea is the world outside of high school can be used to motivate the average and below average students to develop job skills that lead to employment. This student motivation is tangible and can literally change the country.

Clinton’s idea of altering the responsibility for high schools to the whole city is such an brilliant outside the box idea that a major university’s psychology department must research the concept of this student motivation. There are plenty of young subjects in and outside of high schools to use as subjects for research. It must be fairly easy to compare the motivation of the million dropouts to career academy students. Today’s high schools ignore any concept of student motivation beyond that of college preparation. Thus, the idea of using jobs and career preparation as motivation to stay in high school is an alien concept. The mayor and city council’s challenge is to get school boards to understand the motivations of high school students. It will not be possible to create career academies in high schools until school boards understand the enormity of the problem of what happens to kids when they leave high school. Then they will be willing to accept what can motivate students to learn employable skills while still in high school. Instead of trying gimmick online courses and GED tests, high schools must step up and offer an appropriate education for all of their students.

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on

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Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Eucation or Incarceration? on
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