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No matter your political or ideological leanings, you can’t help but admit that there was a time when the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s name was actually tied to strong activism for advancing civil rights for African-Americans. The son of a boxer who was adopted by his stepfather at age 14, Jackson emerged as the leading figure in the civil rights movement after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. By 1984, Jackson had become a leading political figure in 1984 by becoming the first black man to run for the American presidency; in 1991, he became an international figure as well after negotiating the release of hostages held by the infamous Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the First Gulf War.

But these days, Jackson is better-known for appearances at the funerals of stars such as Whitney Houston, his publicized infidelity involving a former aide, and incidents such as being caught calling then-presidential candidate Barack Obama an expletive on-camera during what he thought was an off-camera moment. For every occasional moment Jackson rises to the occasion (such as stepping up after the Trayvon Martin murder), he fails to live up to his own legacy. Jackson has become such a caricature of himself that Memphis preacher and school leader Kenneth Whalum declared on Twitter (after noticing that Jackson wasn’t wearing his wedding ring) that instead of leading chants about “I am somebody”, he should be declaring that “I am married.”

What may be even more galling is that Jackson, once the path-breaking figure among those who are now old-school civil rights activists, has failed to lead on the most-important civil rights issue of our modern times: The reform of American public education and the need to stem an education crisis that condemns one out of every two young black men to poverty and prison.

A new generation of black civil rights leaders have emerged, pushing for the expansion of high-quality school choices; agitating for the end of Zip Code Education policies that restrict the ability of black families to help their kids get strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula; championing the overhaul of urban and suburban failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity; and battling National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates to end near-lifetime employment privileges and other practices that deny high-quality teaching to poor and minority kids (as well as damage the quality and the esteem of the teaching profession as a whole). These advocates, including Better Education for Kids Executive Director Derrell Bradford, Black Alliance for Educational Options President Ken Campbell; singer John Legend; Hartford, Conn. principal and CNN commentator Dr. Steve Perry, and Whalum himself, have been joined by civil rights veterans such as Michael Lomax of the United Negro College Fund, who recognize that overhauling American public education — and keeping young black men on the path to economic and social success — is critical to revitalizing black communities (and to the nation as a whole) in an age in which what you know is more important than what can be done with your hands.

As Phillip Jackson of the Black Star Project made clear in yesterday’s Dropout Nation commentary, the prospects for far too many young black men are bleak. Young black men make up one out of every five eighth-graders who will drop out in five years; even if they make it out of high school, young black men will earn only 34 percent of all the degrees awarded to black students overall. And once a young black man drops out of school, they, along with their white, Latino, Asian, and Native peers, are unlikely to stay out of prison or earn the kind of incomes that can sustain families. The average black high school dropout, for example, earns $9,142 a year less than a  peer with some form of college education; sixty-percent of black male dropouts will have landed in prison by their early 30s, according to Princeton University researcher Bruce Western.

The effects of the nation’s education crisis on young black men start early. Forty percent of all students will enter school struggling with literacy, regardless of what their parents do; young men especially struggle because the areas of their brain involved in reading comprehension develops later in them than in young women. Yet traditional districts fail to provide early reading interventions that can help keep more young men (and young women) on the path to literacy. This, along with the low quality of reading curricula and instruction (along with the abysmal training of teachers in reading provided by the nation’s ed schools) end up putting young black men (and other kids) on the path to academic failure.

One out of every two young black men in fourth-grade is functionally illiterate, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress; the average fourth-grade black boy reads at the same level as a first-grade white boy. As a result, young black men are more likely to be steered into special ed ghettos in which they are unlikely to receive a high-quality education. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles noted in their 2006 study, low levels of literacy in first grade lead to young black men becoming discipline problems by third. Little wonder why 28 percent of young black men in middle school have been suspended by the time they leave for high school.

This problem is exacerbated by zoned schooling rules and other Zip Code Education policies that force black families to send their sons and nephews to schools that are unfit for their futures. As Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert Balfanz and Nettie Lettgers noted in their pathbreaking 2004 study on the nation’s dropout crisis, 46 percent of black high school students attend dropout factories where they have a one-in-two chance of graduating from high school. Another problem lies with the fact that many teachers and school leaders damn young black men — especially those from poor backgrounds — with low expectations, denying them opportunities for the strong curricula and high-quality teaching they need for success.

Certainly the first wave of school reforms that began in the early 1990s — including the launch of charter schools such as KIPP, along with the wave of reforms ushered in after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act — have helped lower those numbers and slightly improved prospects for all students. But more needs to be done to push the next wave of systemic reforms — including expanding high-quality educational opportunities, and overhauling how we recruit and train teachers who can work with kids from minority backgrounds — that can help young black men succeed. In short, we need all black men, especially Jackson, to stand up and be counted in advancing reform.

Yet with the exception of an op-ed this week on the overuse of harsh school discipline, Jackson has done little on the school reform front. If anything, he has joined the NAACP as being a steadfast fellow-traveler with NEA and AFT affiliates in defending the very practices and schools that have ruined the futures of young black men (and the opposition to school choice that black families support). Last month, Jackson proclaimed that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s continuation of predecessor Richard Daley’s longstanding effort to shut down failure mills and replace them with new schools was perpetuating “apartheid”.  Jackson also teamed up with the AFT’s bellicose Second City local to protest the district’s layoffs of 365 low-performing teachers, supporting its argument that the district disproportionately laid off black and Latino teachers, part of the union’s latest effort to protect the very privileges that have long fueled its influence.

Certainly Jackson could offer some legitimate criticism of Chicago’s school reform efforts. Although the district has improved over time, with the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic declining from 60 percent to 52 percent between 2003 and 2011, it still struggles in providing high-quality education to the city’s young black men. Jackson could easily challenge Emanuel and his schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, to improve literacy instruction and even provide early reading remediation to young black male students, or even ask them to embrace efforts such as the Open Society Foundation’s black male education initiative. Jackson could even argue that Chicago should enact a Parent Trigger provision that allows families to take control of their schools and attempt their own turnarounds.

But Jackson hasn’t done any of this. More importantly, in attacking Chicago’s efforts to shutter failure mills, Jackson ignores the reality that district-initiated school turnaround efforts rarely work. Just 11 percent of California elementary schools forced by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later, according to Andy Smarick (now an adjutant to New Jersey school czar Chris Cerf); fewer than one in ten traditional district schools were turned around six years later, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in its 2011 study. Meanwhile shutting down schools and replacing them with new operations has turned out to be work better. Sixty-eight percent of charter schools opened in the Denver school district between 2007 and 2011 outperformed the Mile High City’s traditional district schools, while 61 percent of new “innovation schools” opened by the district outperformed older traditional counterparts, according to a report released this week by the Donnell-Kay Foundation. In fact, it is the shutdown of dropout factories (and the opening of new replacement operations) by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg since he took control of the district a decade ago which partly explains the city’s improvement in student achievement.

This isn’t to say that Chicago has always gotten it right on school shutdowns; in fact, as the Consortium on Chicago School Research has noted, the city’s biggest failure has been in not opening new schools and, in the process, allowing kids to go to schools that were just as bad (if not worse) than those from which they fled.  As Anthony Bryk and his team showed in Organizing Schools for Improvement – the City of Big Shoulders has managed to pull off some amazing school turnarounds. But you can’t save every failing school, especially when the culture within it has become too geared toward failure. And it seems that Chicago has learned its lessons — and those from cities that have managed school shutdowns in a more effective manner — making Jackson’s complaint seem senseless.

Meanwhile Jackson never considered that perhaps given the low performance of many Chicago schools, it may be a good idea for the district to toss out the instructors who, along with incompetent and mediocre principals, have perpetuated educational neglect and malpractice for decades. Nor has Jackson considered the role of his AFT allies in protecting failure. After all, it is the traditional system of degree- and seniority-based compensation, near-lifetime employment, and reverse-seniority layoff rules that have contributed to the low quality of teachers working with young black men and other children in Second City schools. He would be better off rejecting his alliance with the AFT and instead, team up with the New Jack school reformers who are leading the way in systemically reforming a failed system.

But Jackson isn’t alone. As Dropout Nation has noted over the past couple of years, old-school civil rights groups have aided and abetted education traditionalists who are more-interested in protecting their privileges. From the fizzled effort two years ago by the National Urban League and other groups two years ago to criticize President Barack Obama’s school reform efforts, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s unsuccessful work with the AFT’s New York affiliate last year to effectively kibosh the expansion of charter schools in the Big Apple, these old-school groups have all but stated that the status quo in American public education should remain quite ante. The fact that veteran and retired teachers and principals — who benefit greatly from traditional teacher compensation and privileges — still control the direction of these organizations is part of the problem; the fact that NEA and AFT affiliates have lavished considerable funds on these groups also plays a part. The old-school crowd also remain dedicated to the outdated notion that socioeconomic and racial integration will improve student achievement — even amid evidence that the real solutions lie with overhauling how we recruit, train, and pay teachers, providing all kids with strong curricula, expanding school opportunities, using data smartly in educational activities, and making parents lead decision-makers in schools.

In the process, old-school civil rights activists have alienated black families, particularly those in urban communities often served by failure factories, who have become major supporters of expanding choice and are forming their own groups to sustain reform. More importantly, these groups have all but declared that they will not stand up to help the very children and families they are supposed to help. In short, they, along with Jackson, have cheapened their legacies as the voices for helping blacks attain the very liberties they deserve — and condemning the futures of young black men.

Jackson still has an opportunity to stand on the right side for advancing systemic reform. So do the old-school civil rights groups that are on the wrong side of history. We need all hands to help our young black men attain the futures they deserve.

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