COMMENTS: Colin Powell is a PR Champ

Colin Powell proves he still has public relations chops. The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State attracted maximum attention for a routine piece of research published by his America's Promise Alliance. Cities in Crisis publicized the hardly surprising, although truly disheartening, fact that inner city public high schools are vastly inferior to those in their surrounding suburbs. There are 17 big city public systems that fail to graduate at least half of their high school students. Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Baltimore rank worst. In total 1.2m teenagers drop out of high school nationwide each year. Powell's report was Story of the Day and the lead item on ABC's newscast. He granted his Exclusive interview on its findings to CBS anchor Katie Couric. CBS and NBC both covered the report but decided to lead instead with the rising price of oil.

Both CBS' Dean Reynolds and NBC's Mika Brzezinski saw a racial factor underlying the urban-suburban gap. Reynolds called graduation rates "far worse" for students belonging to minority groups; Brzezinski contrasted a 76% white graduation rate in all public schools with 53% for African Americans. In Detroit's system, just 25% of eighth graders make it through all four years. On ABC, Sharyn Alfonsi told us the data applied to all high schools, not just the public systems, presumably her mistake. She stated that "statistics show high school dropouts are more likely to commit crimes, to live in poverty, to receive and stay on government assistance--an economic tsunami."

Alfonsi's vaguely-worded "more likely" thus glided over the thorny sociological problem of cause and effect. Surely dropouts are more likely to be brought up in high-crime neighborhoods, in poverty and on welfare, too. Even Secretary Powell was unclear about whether his report was describing an educational failure or an underlying social problem that happens to manifest itself at school. When he ticked off the factors leading to a high dropout rate for CBS' Couric, he included poor funding for inner city schools--and then added the lack of "strong families," too few Boys & Girls Clubs and Big Brothers-Big Sisters programs, too many cartoons on television.

ABC followed up with Neal Karlinsky's (embargoed link) profile of a program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that focused on improving high schools themselves to increase graduation rates. He showed us a pilot scheme at Clover Park HS in Gates' Washington State that reduces class sizes and insists on continuity with the same teacher instructing the same students for all four years. Yet even Karlinsky's report acknowledged that non-educational factors can lead to poor educational outcomes, citing "risk factors like pregnancy, poverty and truancy."


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