05/10/2005 08:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Real Test

A primary goal of our public education system is to provide our country with educated voters. Given this mission one would think that 18 to 24 year olds are the most likely segment of the population to vote because they have recently emerged from 13 years of public education. Sadly this is the population least likely to vote. The real world high stakes test of “Do our graduates vote?” gives our system a failing grade.

How do we start the process of fixing this huge failure of our schools?

To start with every high school needs hard data about its successes and failures. High schools need to know what percent of its graduates vote. It is time for us judge high schools not just on how many seniors pass math and English proficiency tests and what colleges graduates attend but on what percentage of graduates vote. When high schools get highly visible feedback about what percentage of their graduates are voting the belief that voting is a valued measure of educational success is underscored. Using this data high schools can begin to evaluate what programs contribute to student’s participating in our democracy and work to make measurable gains.

Teaching reading, writing and arithmetic is not enough when youth do not connect what they learn to the values that tie us together as a society. Freedom, community, opportunity, honesty and responsibility are values upon which our country was founded and upon which the ongoing health of our country depends. Compassion is a universal value that speaks to the best of our human nature. Compassion, community, responsibility, respect for others give individuals depth of character and purpose. Core American values must be taught for our society to thrive. Adults that feel connected to their community vote.

Our public educational system respects the separation of church and state. Sadly secular education is too often equated with the consumer culture that has come to characterize America. This sells us short. Consumerism does not satisfy the fundamental human craving to live a purposeful life. Schools need to offer children an education that includes the exploration of the values we share. When individuals develop these values they become engaged citizens who contribute to our communities and in so doing are fulfilled individuals.

It is time for us to look thoughtfully at our education system. Is it giving our children what they need to live fulfilling lives? What might explain why fewer 18-24 year olds vote now than two decades ago? High school graduates are one of the most disengaged population in our society if we judge by voting habits. What are schools that have high voting rates doing that schools with low voting rates do not? It is time to put real commitment behind the platitude “the children are our future”. How do we create a culture of meaningful engagement?

One note to substantiate the youthful need for purpose.

In the book "Is There No Other Way" Micheal Nagler wrote about Palestinian youth being transformed by a sense of purpose when they recognized that their families and community needed them.

when the Intifada got underway, the youth of the occupied territories stopped taking drugs. Drugs and alcohol abuse, until then a serious problem, virtually disappeared.

P148 Micheal Nagler “Is there No Other Way”

Makes me think about the possibilities.