Why We Are Getting Our Head Out of the Sand

Just months ago I went to their high school graduation parties and summer sendoff celebrations, and now they are coming home again. They are washing out of their four-year colleges and licking their wounds with a few courses at our local community college.

They have lost face, lost money and lost momentum.

This is happening in my hometown, and all over the country, in places you would never suspect. And it seems like no one really wants to talk about why it’s happening, because these kids graduated with good grades from “good schools” in well-funded middle class neighborhoods that love to boast of high college admission rates.

This is why I’m moderating this new blog, Head in the Sand, with its in-your-face title and an earnest plea to reach the reasonable, realistic and riled voices—parents and educators who are drowned out by the caustic debate but nonetheless want something better from the $620 billion investment we are making in our nation’s schools.

Washing out of college is not just a big-city school problem. It is not just a problem for poor kids, or black and brown kids. This is a problem in the suburbs, in the exurbs, in small towns and rural America. This touches single moms, soccer moms, opt-out moms, and yes, the #IHateCommonCore moms too.

I point this out not to draw focus away from the daunting inequities and challenges faced by urban schools and low-income children, because those inequities are profound and unjust.

But we are never going to embrace school improvement as a national priority if we keep thinking the status quo is working just fine for most of America—that school reform is only needed in marginalized communities or in schools where “parents don’t value education.”

Our recently-departed education secretary Arne Duncan found himself in a maelstrom of minivan rage when he dared to point out the obvious: That some of the opposition to higher standards was coming from suburban moms who suddenly realize:

Their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were…you bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.”

That was three years ago, and Arne wisely (i.e., politically) walked back that bit of unfiltered honesty. But it doesn’t make it any less true, or any less of a national emergency.

We read these statistics, and they wash over us unheard like Muzak in a supermarket:

  • Almost 60 percent of recent high school graduates are NOT on track to succeed in college—a percentage that has not moved in five years, based on college entrance exams.
  • Only a fourth of 12th graders scored proficient or above on the NAEP mathematics exam.
  • Fewer than 40 percent of students who start at four-year colleges graduate four years later.
  • A fourth of all new freshman had to enroll in remedial courses during their first year of college.

These are not the kids from our “good schools,” right?


Consider this: Among students with a college-graduate parent, only 56 percent are still attending their original college three years later, while 20 percent left college but never re-enrolled, according to a federal postsecondary survey. A fourth of students who completed pre-calculus in high school started college, but left before three years and didn’t re-enroll in another college, the same survey found.

I realize students leave college for an array of reasons—money problems, family and social issues, too much partying combined with not enough studying. But an alarming number of “honor roll” students are not ready for college work.

It is indeed a punch in the gut. But we can’t keep pulling the punch. Our children can handle the truth. They deserve the truth.

What do you think?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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