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The newly-released National Assessment of Educational Progress data provides us with a yardstick of the quality of education produced by urban school districts. According to the report, the percentage of all students scoring at or above “Proficient” in grade 8 reading (a crucial indicator of education improvement) went from 30 percent to 34 percent between 2009 and 2013. There are various ways of looking at this.  One would be that these are “tidal measures,” as it were, marks of the rising tide that is supposed to raise all boats.

Some of the boats had quite a way to go. Some did not float up all the way with the tide.

The percentage of male Black students that districts teach to read by the time they reach eighth grade is a key indicator of the educational opportunities those districts choose to make available, especially when we look across districts and states and make comparisons with other groups within specific districts. The results of the assessment of the skills of male Black students are the way that we can assess the opportunities to learn offered by districts.

Nationally, in 2009, just nine percent of eighth-grade young black men were reading at grade level – in this case, at Proficient and Advanced levels – in 2009. In 2013 that was up to 12 percent, a three point improvement that was slightly less than the improvement in that period for all students. In other words, looking at the crucial skill of reading at the key grade 8 level, nearly 90 percent of male Black students have been left with skills below grade level.

This is not good. At this rate of improvement, two percentage points every four years, it will take eighty years for half of eighth-grade young black men to read at grade level. Some tide.

Let’s look at some examples from major cities. In Detroit, the percentage of young black men in eighth-grade reading at grade level increased from four percent to five percent between 2009 and 2013.  In Cleveland, the percentage of young black men in eighth grade reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from five percent to six percent in that same period. In Fresno, the percentage of young black men reading at grade level declined from seven percent to six percent, while in Milwaukee, it “improved” from three percent to four percent. On average, then, something like 95 percent of male Black students in these cities are not reading at grade level in eighth grade.

What is to be said about school officials who fail their students 95 percent of the time?

Certain commentators say that the issue is poverty. Put simply, until students’ families are not living in poverty schools cannot be expected to teach them to read.

There is some data about poverty, race and educational achievement.  In Milwaukee, for example, three percent of male Black students eligible for national lunch programs (a measure of poverty) read at Proficient and Advanced levels, as compared to four percent in Mississippi, eight percent nationally, and 11 percent in New York City. If poverty were the decisive factor, why does its influence vary this much by location?  Wouldn’t the correlation of poverty and educational achievement be the same? Why do so many more poor male Black students in New York City read at or above the “Proficient” level than those in Milwaukee?

The percentages of young black and young white men in eighth-grade reading at Proficient and Advanced levels in West Virginia are nearly identical.  And yet in Wisconsin, where 32 percent of young white men in eight grade reach the “Proficient” level, only seven percent of their young black male peers do. How is it that Wisconsin’s young white men are taught to read at a level similar to that of Michigan and North Carolina, while their young black men are only taught to read at levels typical of Mississippi, Arkansas and the District of Columbia? Family income does not seem to be a factor. Black family income is about the same in Wisconsin as in West Virginia.  State wealth cannot be the issue, either. Does one need to point out that Wisconsin is a much wealthier state than West Virginia?

If poverty isn’t the decisive factor, could it be, as some “conservative” commentators, Black and White, claim, something about family attitudes?  But that would mean that Black families are less interested in the education of their children in Wisconsin than in West Virginia, right?  Really? How do those commentators know that?

So if it isn’t poverty or family attitudes, what other possibility is left? Could it be something about the schools? Could it be, to reverse the blame on black families, that those responsible for the schools in Milwaukee and cities like it are less interested in the education of black children than that of white children?

One thing that can be said is that a rate of failure, such as NAEP reports in cities such as Milwaukee, Detroit and Fresno, is not necessary. Fifteen percent of young black eighth-graders in Charlotte’s schools are reading at grade level, as are 26 percent of their black female peers, improvements from 2009 of five points and three points, respectively.  Hillsborough is at 16 percent for young black men in eighth grade and 19 percent for black female peers. And in New York City, 13 percent of young black men in eighth grade are reading at grade level – an increase of three percentage points since 2009 – and 23 percent of their black female peers are at grade level (a nine point increase).

These are not great numbers. But teaching 15 percent of young black men to read is unquestionably better than teaching only five percent of them to do so. All other things being equal, three times as many might graduate from high school, find a job, go to college, stay out of jail, help raise their children without needing national lunch programs, perhaps move somewhere with good schools.

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