42.4% of U.S. adults were smokers. By 2003, that number was cut in half and in 2013 we were down to 17.8%. And, of course, our population has risen quite a bit over this timeframe from 194 million people in 1965 to over 320 million people today.
No one in the United States in 1965 would have ever believed that Americans would give up their love for smoking so dramatically. Even with today's relatively low rates of smoking, nearly 70% of current smokers want to stop smoking. It is nothing short of amazing the way this addictive behavior has changed in the United States in just a couple of generations.
I believe that our public schools can look at this incredible event, this long arc of changed behavior, and that we can use it as a lesson for tackling the equally difficult task of improving the educational outcomes of our students. We can examine the efforts that took place (and continue to take place) that convinced people that smoking is bad for you; and (perhaps) we can undertake similar efforts in our public schools.
I believe that a similar combined effort is underway in our public schools today. We have a government that believes in the value of education and is dedicated in improving the education of our citizens. We also have many private efforts underway that are striving to do the same. We also have segments of our population that don't believe that education is important. As with the smoking example, they point to friends and relatives that quit school in eighth grade and grew up perfectly fine. But (as with the smoking example), we also have generations of parents that have regrets of not doing better and trying harder when they were in high school. They look at their peers who went on to college or some sort of vocational training and now have higher-paying jobs.
I believe that we can change the behavior of Americans toward the value of education--and all of the hard work that this entails--over the next generation. I believe that we can see a country with higher high school graduation rates and higher college graduation rates. And when this happens, we will reap the benefits of a more educated society. We will see less crime, less people on welfare, less obesity, and a strong economy. And I believe that this will happen within the lifetimes of our current high school students.
We can do it. We have done it in other areas of our society and we can do in education too. We must do better and we will.