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As you would expect, Dropout Nation takes issue with some of the conclusions reached by the Schott Foundation for Public Education in its latest and otherwise important and substantial report on graduation rates for young black men. The report’s sharp barbs at New York City’s school reform efforts (and its implicit criticism of the school reform movement), ignores the Big Apple’s success in improving graduation rates by four percentage points over that period (along with the other improvements in the achievement of young black men that this publication has documented). Schott’s latent opposition to standards and accountability is rather schizophrenic given that it also decries how young black and Latino men aren’t getting comprehensive college-preparatory education.

Meanwhile Schott wrongheadedly blames reformers for issue of students poorly served by adults in schools being “pushed out” by them. That aspect of the education crisis (along with the equally inexcusable move by principals and teachers of socially promoting struggling students into academic failure) has been chronicled by social critics such as the legendary Leon Dash (who once explained to your editor how a kid would be brought into a principal’s office and encouraged to take their leave) and predates reform efforts since the 1990s. The same applies to Schott’s complaint that improving curriculum standards leads to teachers and school leaders “simply labeling those students as
“disinterested,” “slow,” “bad” or as having Attention Deficit Disorder; apparently the foundation should pay more attention to Dropout Nation’s coverage of how special education has long been a way-station for children traditional districts didn’t want to teach. It is rather senseless to blame reformers for the actions of teachers and school leaders who have never had the interest of the children in their care in mind. (Your editor won’t hit upon the irony of the report being prefaced with a letter from Baltimore Supt. Andres Alonso, one of the nation’s leading reform-minded school leaders.)

In fact, if one looks closely at Schott’s own data (starting with its pioneering 2004 on abysmal graduation rates for young black men, which informed your editor’s earlier reporting), one can easily see that states and districts embraced systemic reform improved graduation rates by strong numbers while those that didn’t have lagged behind.

In Indiana, graduation rates for young black men increased by 11 percentage points between the Classes of 2002 and 2010, while Florida’s graduation rates for young black men increased by nine percentage points in that same period; Orange County, Fla., has benefited from the state’s reforms, with its graduation rate for young black men increasing by 15 percent in that period, while Chicago, no exemplar when it comes to young black men, increased graduation rates by six percent in that same period. On the other hand, Virginia’s graduation rates for young black men declined by one percent between 2002 and 2010, while graduation rates for New Jersey (which, save for Newark, has largely lagged behind on reform until the past two years) declined by seven percent in that same period; black male graduation rates in Gwinnett County, Ga., declined by nine points in that same period, while graduation rates for Los Angeles, another district with sluggish dedication to reform, declined by four percent. This isn’t to say that reform-minded districts have done as well as they need to in order to help young black men achieve success. But when districts and states fail to overhaul curriculum standards, refuse to revamp teacher quality, fail to pursue school and district overhauls (including the school closings Schott has opposed for the past few years), and don’t expand school choice and Parent Power.

At the same time, the Schott Foundation deserves credit for consistently shedding light on the high cost of the nation’s education crisis — and the cultures of low expectations for poor and minority children — on young black (and Latino) men. And it once again serves as a reminder to reformers that they must continue to overhaul American public education, and toss out the failed policies and practices that have led to so many young of our sons, regardless of who they are or where they live, being condemned to poverty, prison, and despair.

Certainly it is good news to see that graduation rates for young black men have increased by ten percentage points between 2002 and 2010. Yet the reality remains that only one out of every two young black men who are high school freshmen will leave with a diploma in four years (versus two in five nearly a decade ago). The fact that so few young black men graduate (and make up three out of every five young black children who drop out), is one reason why 22.5 percent of African Americans age 16-to-24 in the nation’s big cities are “disconnected” from the economic mainstream, according to a recent report from the Social Science Research Council, and why young black men attain only one out of every three baccalaureate degrees awarded by the nation’s universities. In an increasingly global economic age in which what you know is more important than what you do with your hands, low graduation rates equals devastating consequences to the lives of these young men, the communities in which they live, and for an America in which minorities are increasingly the majority of adult populations, the economic and social landscape.

While a decade of reforms ushered in by the No Child Left Behind Act have helped improve achievement for young black men, far too many practices that damage the academic and social prospects of our sons and nephews remain in place. The fact that 17 percent of black students were suspended at least once in the 2009-2010 school year (and nearly three in ten young black men in middle school were suspended at least once, according to 2006 U.S. Department of Education data, the last year available for breakdowns based on gender) is inexcusable. This is especially true in light of overwhelming evidence that such harsh discipline does little to keep kids on the path to graduation, fails to address the illiteracy often at the heart of student misbehavior, and ignores the role low quality of teaching (including classroom management skills) plays in fostering cultures of low expectations in schools. Ending the overuse of suspensions and expulsions is one area in which Schott and reformers should find common cause.

The fact that so few young black men are enrolled in so-called gifted-and-talented programs hits upon Contributing Editor (and Schott Foundation research czar) Michael Holzman’s point that such programs perpetuate segregation by another name. Schott’s data, including on New York City’s selective high schools, hits upon the reality that entry into such programs (especially the gifted programs that lead into those schools) is dependent on the perceptions of teachers and guidance counselors who are the gatekeepers for them. More often than not, the gatekeepers do little to either inform poor and minority families about those opportunities and stand in the way of their access, often because they think little of the potential of our children, especially young black men.

What is especially pernicious about the gatekeeper problem is that schools are shutting doors on kids who can do well in challenging courses if given opportunity and support. This is because we really can’t actually predict who is “gifted and talented” or whether they will even remain that way down the road. As University of Iowa psychologist David Lohman and Katrina Korb (now of the University of Jos in Nigeria) pointed out in a 2006 report, just 45 percent of first-graders who scored higher than 130 points on the Stanford-Binet test used by many to determine cognitive ability would have scored at that level on other IQ exams; most first-graders considered gifted in first grade don’t keep that label two years later. And, according to Lohman, only 25 percent of four year-olds scoring 130 on the Stanford-Binet will do so as 17-year-olds. This isn’t shocking. Cognitive ability is dynamic and not a constant, influenced by the quality of learning environment (especially in challenging and engaging coursework in school) as it is on natural growth over time. It is why so many once-struggling students such as Fedex Office founder Paul Orfalea (a dyslexic) turn out to be successful (one would say, far more more successful) than the A-students who did well in the classroom.

Given these realities, it is clearly time to abandon gifted-and-talented programs, which like special education ghettos, ability-tracking, and the comprehensive high school model, are legacies of the same racialist thinking among educators about minorities and immigrants in the early 20th century that is at the heart of the nation’s education crisis today. Ultimately, it is far more important to provide all children with high-quality education and help all of them address their particular learning needs — from reading remediation to providing them with additional outside learning opportunities — than to continue practices that don’t serve young black men and their peers all that well. Schott is right to take aim at Zip Code Education policies that perpetuate this wrongful rationing of education, and for supporting the expansion of learning opportunities and Parent Power — including promoting the personal learning plans used by North Carolina to help at-risk students (even if it fails to go further by calling for expansion of charters, vouchers, and online learning options, as well as for the passage of Parent Trigger laws).

Again, the Schott Foundation’s report deserves attention for once again reminding all of us of how far we still must go to help all young black men, and all children, get the high-quality teaching, curricula, and cultures of genius they need for lifelong success.