Much of the talk in education circles these days is focused on attempts to close the "achievement gap" between White students and students of color. This gap is measured by outcomes on standardized assessments, such as state exams in English Language Arts (ELA) and math, or national measures like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAPE).
The persistence of this gap is common knowledge. What I will explore in this column are the mindsets, beliefs and policies that may be responsible for the gap, as well as ideas that might lead to long-term, sustainable solutions.
According to a recent study conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, by fourth grade, only 12 percent of black male students read at or above grade level, compared to 38 percent of white males. By eighth grade it falls to a stunning 9 percent for black males, a stark contrast to the 33 percent for whites. Nationally, black male students are almost twice as likely as white males to drop out of school.
Here in New York, the picture is much bleaker: A 50-state report conducted by the Schott Foundation for Public Education concluded that New York State has one of the worst on-time graduation rates for black males in the country. Seventy-five percent of black male students in New York do not graduate from high school on time. Seventy-five percent.
In an interview with CBS News, Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools says that Black males now make up only 5 percent of college enrollment nationally, yet constitute 36 percent of the prison population. And if you speak to anyone here in Brooklyn who works in our public school system, none of these statistics would be surprising.
So then, where is the outrage? Where is the national call to action? Why aren't the streets on fire and filled with parents of these children, protesting this disgrace? I think there are two answers, and I believe that both of them are direct reflections of our core beliefs as a community:
We do not believe that education is essential to life. What I mean is, we do not see it as something that is essential to our ability to survive and to live like productive citizens. We know it is something that we should be concerned about, so we say things like "education is the key to success." But this is more a function of habit and social custom.
An elementary school right here in Bed-Stuy-- where only 29 percent of its students are reading at or above grade level-- received an "A" on its New York City Department of Education (DOE) progress report. How is that possible and where is the outcry? Yet, when schools that are underperforming are threatened with closure, routinely, people come out of the woodwork protesting to keep them open, despite their poor results. Why fight to keep open a failing school, yet do little to make sure that it works? If a hospital had a surgical survival rate of only 29 percent, it would be shuttered immediately.
When a school where more than 70 percent of its students are unable to read at grade level receives the highest mark and there is no public outcry, it is clear that for those of us— teachers, administrators, community members and parents, in particular—who are responsible for the care and development of these children, being able to read is not truly valued as essential to life.
Black children are expected to underperform.
The statistics that were cited earlier would only be a cause for alarm and protest, if they did not already conform to our expectations. But the truth is, the information contained in these reports and studies fall right in line with what most people believe about the capacity of black children to achieve academically.
Black males make up only 5 percent of college enrollment nationally. If a report were issued tomorrow stating black males underperformed in basketball, compared to their white counterparts, and as a result only 5 percent of basketball players accepted into the NBA were black, every talk show, news program and blog would express outrage by the findings. There would be lawsuits, investigations, marches, boycotts, because such a report would be wholly inconsistent with our expectations and what we know to be true. Yet there is no outrage about a 5 percent black male college enrollment. So what does that say about our beliefs and expectations?
The desire to close the gap between what is and what should be is what leads to action. But when outcomes are exactly what we expected them to be, we maintain the status quo. Very little in terms of the achievement gap will change until beliefs about and expectations of children of color change dramatically.
So, how do we authentically raise the expectation regarding Black academic achievement and intellectual life? When will failure be a cause for outcry and not simply the expectation? These themes and others are what will be explored in this column.
*Reprint of an article that ran December 15, 2010