The US Administration last week announced a get-tough strategy for turning around persistently struggling schools, offering an unprecedented rise in federal funding for local school systems that shake up their lowest-achieving campuses.
President Obama called curbing the nation's drop-out problem a pressing economic and social imperative: "This is a problem we cannot afford to accept and we cannot afford to ignore. The stakes are too high - for our children, for our economy and for our country."
According to the White House, about 7,000 US students drop out of school each day - a total of 1.2 million students a year - and only about 70 per cent of students graduate every year. As a result of this "drop-out crisis", it said, the nation loses $319 billion (pound;211bn) a year in potential earnings.
The problem is concentrated in the nation's poorest schools and among minority students. Just 2,000 of America's schools - about 12 per cent of the nation's total - account for half of the nation's drop-outs; more than 50 per cent of them are African-American or Latino. Boys are also much more likely than girls to be unsuccessful in school.
The Government has sought to combat the drop-out problem with an infusion of federal aid for school districts that come up with innovative plans to help students graduate. Targeted schools include those with low graduation rates and the lowest-achieving schools in impoverished neighbourhoods.
The President's budget for the fiscal year which begins in October proposes $900m for school "turnaround grants", up from $546m in the fiscal year 2010. The economic stimulus law enacted last year provided an additional $3bn for the turnaround initiative. The 2011 budget, released last month, awaits action in Congress.
In return for the cash, the administration wants to see action for improvement, which could involve replacing the school's principal or requiring at least half the staff to leave. Schools might also be transferred to the control of other organisations or ordered to raise teacher effectiveness and increase learning time. A last resort would be closing a school and dispersing its students.
Despite criticism of school accountability programmes, President Obama declared: "If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability."
By Michael A Fletcher and Nick Anderson (Washington Post)
Comment, page 21.