Two hundred forty-nine black high school children in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri took advanced math subjects such as trigonometry, statistics, and pre-calculus during the 2011-2012 school year, according to data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s a mere 9.3 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s 2,868 young black men and women in the district’s high schools. How bad is it? The percentage of black kids taking these college preparatory math courses is lower than the already-abysmal 13 percent of white high school peers (or 67 out of 527 white children) in those classes. What this means is that far too many kids of all backgrounds in Ferguson-Florissant schools — especially young black men and women who are from poor homes — are not getting the high-quality education they need and deserve for success in adulthood.
But this isn’t shocking. Ferguson-Florissant is like other districts, both in Missouri, and the rest of the nation, in failing to provide all children (especially those from poor and minority households) with college-preparatory curricula. If anything, the district exemplifies the need to advance systemic reform to help all children attain the knowledge they need for higher ed completion and ultimately, to make it into the middle class.
As you know, as part of Dropout Nation’s coverage of Ferguson in the aftermath of the senseless slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown, your editor took a look last week at Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of suspensions and expulsions, noting how it was far more likely for black kids in the district to be suspended than be victims of violent crime in their communities. But the district’s official graduation rate of 78 percent for its Class of 2012, a mere five points lower than the state average, gave pause. Not because it was a conundrum: It has long been shown that districts and other school operators can goose graduation rates by pushing out the kids they didn’t want to educate into nearby districts. Not even because Ferguson-Florissant has gone through turmoil over its suspension and then, firing of Art McCoy, the district’s first black superintendent.
No, the high graduation rate became interesting because it raised another question: Whether Ferguson-Florissant was actually providing kids with the college-preparatory learning they needed for lifelong success. As seen with districts such as Houston, it isn’t enough to get kids to the point of graduation. So DN took a look at Ferguson-Florissant’s data to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights database. And the answers, though not shocking, were still astonishing.
The good news, sort of speak, is that Ferguson-Florissant is providing a plurality of middle-schoolers with introductory algebra, a key college-preparatory course for our children. Some 625 black seventh and eighth-grade children in the district, or 40 percent of the 1,575 black middle-schoolers there, took Algebra 1 during the 2011-2012 school year. Forty-six percent of Ferguson’s white middle-schoolers — or 115 of the 251 white children served by the district — also took the math course.
But Ferguson-Florissant falls down on the job once kids get into high school. Just 432 black high-schoolers, or 15 percent of them, took Algebra II in 2011-2012; a mere 16 percent of white peers (84 of them) took the college prep course. Only 18 percent of black high-schoolers took geometry, lower than the paltry 21 percent of white peers taking the course. Meanwhile a mere 19 black high school students and 14 white peers took calculus in that same year, resulting in, respectively, just six-tenths percent of black high schoolers and three percent of white peers taking the course.
Matters get worse when you look at how few kids in Ferguson-Florissant are being provided science courses. Especially young black men and women, scientific illiteracy means losing out economically and socially in the increasingly knowledge-based world. Just 24 percent of Ferguson’s black high-schoolers took biology in 2011-2012, slightly lower than the 27 percent rate for white high school peers. But only 7.3 percent of black high school students took chemistry, a key college prep course; 14 percent of white peers took chemistry that year. And just 2.1 percent of black high schoolers — that’s 63 young black men and women — took physics; 5.5 percent of white high school students (5.5 percent of them), took physics that year.
One could surmise that perhaps Ferguson-Florissant isn’t providing its own math and science courses because they are directing them to Advanced Placement courses that are also key to preparation for success in higher education and career. This isn’t true. Just 1.4 percent of black high schoolers (40 kids) and three percent of white peers took A.P. math. Just 10 black high school students and two of their white school mates took AP Science. All in all, just 4.2 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s black high schoolers and 11 percent of their white peers were taking A.P. courses. Which means that most of the kids were languishing in low-quality courses that weren’t preparing them for success in outside of the schoolhouse doors. Since the district doesn’t offer International Baccalaureate courses, not one kid was taking them.
What all this means is that most of the kids graduating from Ferguson-Florissant aren’t getting any form of college-preparatory curricula. Sixty-seven percent of Ferguson’s graduates were admitted to higher ed institutions, according to data from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, a rate slightly lower than the Show Me State’s 71 percent average. But there’s little chance that most of the kids will graduate in six years with associate, baccalaureate, and technical school credentials. Just 35 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s vocational school graduates land jobs, a rate far lower than the 53 percent for all such students statewide.
Especially for the black children, who make up most of the district’s student population, the lack of high-quality education means being locked out of the economic and social mainstream, which doesn’t bode well for either Ferguson or the rest of the St. Louis region. You can say that Ferguson-Florissant’s decision this week to not open its doors to serve kids — a move done in response to the protests and militarized policing being done in the city — is terrible. But even when the district’s doors are open, it isn’t serving children well.
There are three reasons why Ferguson-Florissant’s failure to provide kids with college-preparatory learning matters so greatly, both for the people who live in there as well as for the rest of the nation.
For one, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson points out (and as Dropout Nation has illustrated in its Why Systemic Reform collection), far too many black children from poor households (along with those from Latino, Asian, and white backgrounds) are being left behind economically and socially. This is because they are not being provided the college-preparatory curricula (along with high-quality teaching, and cultures of genius) they must have in order to gain high-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs in an increasingly knowledge-based world. Particularly in Ferguson, where the median household income of $36,121 in 2012 is $9,101 less than the average for Missouri and $14,896 less than the national average (and even in Florissant, whose median income of $49,612 keeps it in the ranks of middle-class communities in Missouri), the shoddiness of the traditional schools serving it will condemn its economy and society to long-term failure.
There’s also the fact that Ferguson-Florissant’s failures to provide kids with college-preparatory curricula exemplifies the failure of the Show Me State to do well by all children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds. The move last month by the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards — along with the mishandling of the outrage surrounding Michael Brown’s slaying, and Brown’s alleged murder itself — shows that the state’s political leaders are uninterested in building brighter futures for poor and minority kids. The fact that so few white kids in Ferguson are getting college-prep learning makes one wonder if state and district leaders even care about children that look like them. No one in the Show-Me State can morally justify denying all kids college-preparatory learning.
Your editor suggests to reformers and Common Core supporters on the ground that they take to the courts to hold the state responsible for its constitutional obligation to provide kids in Ferguson and elsewhere with high-quality education. At the same time, they must team up with community leaders and families on the ground to build political support for reviving the standards. As Education Next‘s latest survey shows, 60 percent of black people queried were supportive of Common Core implementation in their states; rallying black and Latino families and communities is critical to making this effort work.
Finally, Ferguson-Florissant’s shoddy curricula (and likely, laggard teaching) also makes the strong case for expanding school choice in both St. Louis and the entire state as a whole. Doing so has been a struggle. The state’s move last year to allow kids from the failing Normandy district to attend schools in other districts has been fought hard by both officials in that district (who don’t want to lose the state dollars that come with those kids) and by counterparts in districts such as Francis Howell (who don’t want those kids and don’t want to have school choice become a reality for their kids either). Normandy beat back efforts to keep choice going for more kids in June when it successfully convinced the state’s board of education to ignore its unaccredited status and keep kids trapped in its failure mills. While Ferguson-Florissant is technically functioning well according to state law, this data makes clear that kids forced to attend its schools should also have the ability to escape.
Bringing high-quality charter school operators, launching voucher programs, and even passing a Parent Trigger law allowing families to take over failing schools in their community are key steps. Requiring all districts in the state to allow families to choose college-preparatory courses instead of them having to go through gatekeepers who often don’t want those kids to get into those classes is also important. The most-critical step of all: The Show Me State taking full responsibility for funding schools. Because the state only provides 42 percent of the $10 billion spent on public education in 2012 (the latest year available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), traditional districts can justify opposing any form of choice and Parent Power, both to families outside of their boundaries and even to those who live within them. By taking full control of school funding, Missouri can voucherize those dollars, expanding school options for every kid.
Ferguson-Florissant’s failure to provide all children with college-preparatory learning is almost as shameful as the slaughtering of Brown’s life. The children there — and all kids everywhere — deserve curricula fit for their futures.