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Keeping eyes on the horizon
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Forsyth County News
There is a principle that every student pilot learns early, mostly the hard way: to assure a smooth landing, keep your eyes on the horizon, not on the ground just beyond the nose of the plane.

That principle is applicable to many of life’s challenges, although, it’s often a lot easier to articulate than to practice.

Today, for good reason, most of us are preoccupied with the economy and what tomorrow will bring. Even the imminent threat of terrorist actions has been relegated to the periphery.

It’s only natural. The things that affect us now get our attention, just as the “fast approaching” ground in front of the aircraft is what worries the student pilot. It takes practice and discipline to change this pattern.

We tend to think of our nation as the best educated, most creative and most resilient in the world. We have an incredible list of accomplishments to “prove” it. Our universities have been the envy of worldwide academia. Our accomplishments in science, medicine and engineering are daunting. We have been a magnet, attracting talent from all over the world.

When we have put our mind and our resources to a task, whether that be gearing up for a world war, putting a man on the moon or finding ways to cure a disease, we usually manage to succeed.

Inertial thinking assumes that this will continue, once we figure out how to solve our current economic woes. But let’s look at one critical aspect of the horizon up ahead.

In January, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy released a report which looked at literacy rates of adults (those older than 16) in 2003. The focus was on basic skills that would normally be encountered in daily life, like the ability to read instructions accompanying a prescription drug or to interpret a billing invoice.

The finding showed 14 percent of the population, about 30 million people, lacked those skills. Recent immigrants contributed to this number, but an even more significant proportion was due to high-school dropouts.

At the state level, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Dakota were the best, with only 6 percent in the bottom category. New York and California were the worst, with 22 and 23 percent, respectively. Georgia sat at 17 percent, Arizona at 13 percent. Sixty-three million people (29 percent) were rated at the basic level, 44 percent were ranked at the intermediate, and only 13 percent of the population was placed in the proficient category.

Let’s turn to high school dropouts. U.S. Department of Education data for 2005 shows a high school dropout rate (individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not enrolled and who have not completed high school) of 9 percent. That single digit number, however, translates into about 3.5 million people.

Hispanics, making up for just 17 percent of the age group, accounted for 41 percent of the dropouts. The good news is that more than half of the dropouts normally go on to get a GED within eight years, although there are some serious questions being raised about the true “educational equivalent” of a high-school diploma and the GED certification.

There’s more bad news hidden within that figure. A study released last year by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center shows serious problems in the inner cities of America’s metropolitan centers. The study covered a different time period (2003-04). It looked at the nation’s 50 largest cities.

The dropout rate in 17 cities, including Atlanta, was greater than 50 percent, with Detroit’s 24.9 percent graduation rate at the bottom. Mesa, Ariz., led the pack, graduating 77.1 percent. Suburban populations fared significantly better than urban.

But we need not only to look within ourselves. We live in a competitive world. As we moved from an agricultural to an industrial and then to a service economy, the driving force has been the ability to create new products and ideas. We live and thrive on our intellectual prowess.

Look around the globe. It is clear that our leadership position, if it still exists, is severely threatened.

An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study, released in 2007, ranked 15-year-olds in science and math within the industrial nations of the world. In science, the United States finished in 29th place, well behind first place Finland and third place Canada. In mathematics we did even worse, coming in at 35, well below average and ahead of only one industrialized nation, Italy. Finland, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong blew everyone else away. Perhaps we need to look at what is going on in Finland.

In another math and science evaluation of 21 nations, American 12th-graders finished 19th, ahead of only Cyprus and South Africa. In advanced math, they were tied for last place, and in physics, they claimed last.

We tend to monitor math and science, not only because they are important, but because they are relatively easy to measure. What would comparable ratings be for subjects such as history, philosophy, geography, the arts and social studies?

We need to address our future. It should have been done yesterday. Now is better than tomorrow. An investment today will not yield results for many years.

Education is key to our position in the world. The huge influx of foreign brain-power is likely to become a relic of the past, as opportunities in countries like China and India become extremely attractive to retain their best talent.

We need to put pressure on our educational systems to improve. It’s not just the federal or local government. It’s not just school system officials and teachers. Parents must take a leadership role as they look to their children’s futures.

But even more, every American who is concerned about this country’s future needs to become involved. Our educational system needs to be fixed. And as they say, the best place to find a helping hand is at the end of one’s arm. As we face today’s problems, we can’t lose sight of the horizon.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at