As our nation’s children return to school, we would do well to reflect on our performance in helping them engage and find academic success.

The nation’s high school graduation rate is nearly 75 percent, up eight percentage points in the last decade. That’s welcome news, but the sobering side of the statistic is that one million American young people will drop out this year. That’s 2,700 kids every day of the year who retreat into the shadows of this land of opportunity.

How can this be? We’re talking about young people between the ages of 14 and 18, who should have light in their eyes, dreams in their hearts, plans and aspirations and goals to achieve, who will one day strap this nation on their backs and carry us forward into the future. One in four of them is calling it quits when they have only just begun. Why?

Answer: They are full of fear and have lost hope.

It’s an unspeakable tragedy when the native optimism of a child is extinguished. The truth is that a child’s potential to learn is unknown and unknowable. If you talk to high school drop outs, you soon learn that it was seldom an event that caused them to drop out, but a gradual defeat. They gave up because they didn’t believe they could do it. Eventually the drip feeder of discouragement convinced them that nobody cared.

The irony is that graduating from high school, which has become a greater necessity in a turbulent and globalizing age, has little to do with smarts and everything to do with confidence. But subjugated people tend to take on the language of their conquerors. We are their conquerors.

We are not protecting our children with the loving, nurturing influence they need to flourish and grow. If society wishes to make a step-change improvement in graduation rates, it must feed the sources of protection and starve the sources of destruction.

The causes of failure are clear. You don’t have to be a cultural anthropologist standing on a street corner on the south side of Chicago to understand the problem. To help students succeed, we must strengthen families, remove drugs and alcohol from our lifestyles, pornography from our homes and portrayals of violence from our media.

To go on in the belief that disintegrating families are incidental to the problem, and that the real problem lies with educational policy reform is self-deception of the highest order.

As all parents and teachers know, the emotional and the intellectual are inseparably connected. In other words, learning requires confidence. Children don’t learn ahead of the confidence they possess. Without confidence, they eventually stop trying.

Most of us can think of a time when a parent, teacher, coach, neighbor or friend had confidence in us when we didn’t have it in ourselves. Someone gave us permission to explode the myth of our own dumbness or lack of ability. As a result, we put forth effort, accomplished something, and then did it again. That’s how kids become healthy, well-adjusted, contributing citizens.

If a teenager gains a vision of her potential, has a few brushes with academic success, and develops a measure of confidence, there’s almost no chance that she will drop out of high school. Why would she? She has participated in an achievement cycle and she’s not the same person she was going into it.

The call to action is simple. We must invest in our children and other people’s children. We must build their confidence, their vision, and their self-esteem by helping them perform esteem-able acts. And how do they learn to perform esteem-able acts? By watching us.

We are all commissioned to protect, lift and encourage the nation’s youth — to love them by setting a good example and by taking a genuine interest in their success. In reality, the greatest source of educational reform is our loving influence and our self-discipline to put their interests above our own.

4 comments on this story

I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office the other day when a three-year old boy ran across the room, climbed up on the chair next to me, put his head on my shoulder and said, “Are you my friend?”

"Yes, I am," I said with a melting heart. I keep thinking about my answer.

Timothy R. Clark is founder of TRClark & Company, a leadership development organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," was released by McGraw-Hill. Email: