New Hampshire Students Tell John Norris How Educational System Is Failing

Dropout rates, quality teachers, college readiness pinpointed as main issues during 'Ed in '08' forum.

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Hallelujah for Senator Chris Dodd: Onstage in Las Vegas Thursday night, he was the one among the Democratic candidates to inject into their bicker-fest — um, "debate" — a mention of education.

And while Dodd said all the right things, calling it "the most important issue of all" and even calling for a debate solely on education, you would be hard-pressed to find much talk of the issue in any of the candidates' regular stump speeches. It's not an especially sexy topic, it doesn't offer easy answers and it most directly impacts young people — who, even if they are of voting age, notoriously don't turn out in droves on Election Day. But when it comes right down to it, is there any issue that has greater implications for our future than education?

A piece of advice to those Democrats, and to the Republican presidential contenders: Next time you're in New Hampshire (which will no doubt be in a matter of days), pay a visit to Manchester's Central High School. The kids there have a lot to say. About nine hours before the Vegas debate, I was joined in Central High's second-floor library by Steve Marchand, the 33-year-old mayor of Portsmouth, and about 60 juniors and seniors, who for nearly an hour gave us an earful of opinions on the state of education — schools, classes, teachers and time spent learning.

The event was part of "Ed in '08," a campaign by the group Strong American Schools, funded in large part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, with the goal of making education a front-burner topic in the 2008 election. "Ed in '08" identifies three primary aspects of education that it says candidates ought to address, and the kids had plenty to say on each of them.

They were divided on the first matter: the importance of raising educational standards to ensure that all students graduate adequately prepared for college, the workplace and to compete in a global economy. This group was culled from 11th- and 12th-grade government and civics classes, and while the majority said they plan to go to college and seemed to feel ready for higher education, at the same time they said they know students who are not satisfied with their level of preparation. Several rejected a "one-size-fits-all" approach, as well as the test-oriented No Child Left Behind Act. As for one of the more troubling "Ed in '08" stats — that 1 million American kids drop out of school every year — nearly all of them said they knew someone who had dropped out; and while they said some did it for personal or family reasons, others said it was because the school had dropped the ball.

There were even more opinions on the second "Ed in '08" point: the need to recruit better and brighter teachers. Most of the kids agreed that a good teacher who inspires you to learn can make the difference between a class you look forward to and one that is just an everyday chore. (I had several when I was in school.) What qualities make a teacher special? One girl said it was a genuine passion for the subject, saying that students can tell when a teacher really is interested, and that interest is contagious. A guy told me that his best teachers were the ones who really pushed him, but at the same time made sure that he was not falling behind. The students were also well aware that teachers are generally grossly underpaid nationwide, and Mayor Marchand spoke of incentives like merit pay for teachers and the difficulty that teachers unions have with such proposals.

Finally, "Ed in '08" calls for more time spent in school, either in the form of longer school days or more weeks in the school year. That idea is by and large a tough sell in a room full of students, many of whom feel like they already put in pretty long days. But some did concede that time at school could be used more effectively and efficiently to maximize learning.

I think it's safe to say that both Mayor Marchand and I both came away feeling like we learned something. Thanks to the kids at Central for letting us into their world for a little while: Their insight, observations and suggestions were amazing.

And Hillary, Barack, John, Rudy, Mitt, all of you — you should have been there. I hope "Ed in '08" will have more of these discussions and those hoping to run America will make time to listen to those who are in fact the future of America.