During the 19th and 20th centuries, Pennsylvania was a center of the anti-slavery movement, part of the route of the Underground Railroad, among the principal destinations of the Great Migration of the descendants of enslaved Africans from the Jim Crow former slave states of the south.
Today, just 17 percent of African-American adults in Pennsylvania have attained a baccalaureate or advanced degree compared to 31 percent of White, non-Hispanic adults. In fact, the level of higher education attainment for Blacks in the Keystone state is lower than the 20 percent national average for all African American adults.
Fifteen percent of Pennsylvania’s Black residents leave school without a high school diploma. That is higher than the nine percent average for White residents and two percentage points greater than the 11 percent national average for all African Americans.
The consequences can be seen in the economy. A much higher percentage of White residents than Black residents are employed in managerial occupations. A much higher percentage of Black residents than White are employed in service occupations. Black family incomes are both lower than those of White families in the state and lower than the national average for African-Americans. The poverty rate for the 1.4 million Black residents of Pennsylvania is more than triple that for White Pennsylvanians.
These matters are all connected. Adults, particularly Black adults, without a high school diploma have little chance for middle class careers, those without college degrees little chance of securing jobs in the professions. Children whose parents have not graduated from college have less of a chance to do well in school than those whose parents are well-educated.
By failing to close the gaps in both the amount and quality of educational opportunities between Black and White residents of Pennsylvania, its state and local officials ensure that Pennsylvania’s racially-based caste system will remain in place.
The educational and racial caste system begins early. Pennsylvania is ranked 30th for access to pre-kindergarten for 4-year olds by the National Institute for Early Education Research. High quality pre-kindergarten programs have positive effects that continue to be evident through the primary grades.
Perhaps in part because of limited access, Pennsylvania’s early childhood education system does not have the expected positive results in the primary grades for Black children, just 15 percent of whom are in the state’s prekindergarten classrooms. While 49 percent of White, non-Hispanic, fourth-graders are taught to read at the level expected at that grade, only 17 percent of Pennsylvania’s African-American fourth graders read at grade level.
The Keystone State’s big-city districts especially lag far behind national averages in teaching fourth grade students to read. While nationally 30 percent of urban children read at grade level in fourth grade, Pennsylvania’s urban schools successfully teach only 19 percent of their students to read proficiently in primary school, while the state’s suburban schools teach more than half of their students to read well—approximately the same proportion left functionally illiterate in fourth grade by the state’s urban schools.
Much of the problem is located in Philadelphia, where just 10 percent of fourth grade African-American students are taught to read proficiently, and even fewer, eight percent, of Black children from lower income families are taught to read to grade level. In Philadelphia, over 90 percent of Black children from lower income families do not reach grade level in reading and nearly two-thirds are functionally illiterate in fourth grade, as are more than half of Black children from middle class families.
Could more access to high quality prekindergarten classes improve this situation? Most researchers believe it would. Why, then, is it that 85 percent of Black children in the state are not given that opportunity?
If a Black child remains in a Pennsylvania public school beyond fourth grade, their chances of being ready for college and career will not improve at all.
By grade eight, the same proportion of White children reading at grade level in eighth grade as in fourth grade and a decline to 13 percent of Black students taught by their schools to read as well as expected in middle school. The state’s record for its White, non-Hispanic, students is better than the national average for the group (42 percent), while that for its Black students is worse than the national average of 16 percent, bringing the state’s racial gap to 34 percentage points greater than the national gap, which is in itself unacceptable, of 27 percentage points.
It is generally expected that education is an important aspect of cultural capital that is passed down within families. But the attitude toward education in the home seems to be overwhelmed by racial disadvantage in Pennsylvania.
The schools in the state teach nearly a third, 30 percent, of White, non-Hispanic, students whose parents did not progress beyond high school to read at the level expected in eighth grade. This is more than twice the percentage of the Black children of college graduates reading at grade level in middle school. The positive effects of higher education attainment level in the families of Black students in Pennsylvania appear to be overwhelmed by the lack of educational opportunities for Black students in the schools.
In Pennsylvania, it is the color of your skin, not just the education level of your parents, which counts.
Student educational attainment in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, is divided by income as well as by race. White students from families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, read at grade level in eighth grade half as often as students from more prosperous White families in Pennsylvania. Black students from families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, read at grade level in eighth grade just under two-thirds as often in Pennsylvania as Black students from middle class families.
The gap between Black students from poorer families and White students from prosperous families is more than forty percentage points. The gap based on income among White students is approximately twenty points, among Black students it is just eight points. Family economic status matters much more for Pennsylvania’s White, non-Hispanic, students than it does for the state’s African-American students. One explanation for this might be that, as in New York City, higher family income in Pennsylvania does not protect Black students from relegation to inferior, segregated, schools.
Racial disparities in Pennsylvania compound those of economic class.
The racial gap for students from lower income families is 15 points in Pennsylvania, as it is nationally, but that for students from middle class families is 38 points in Pennsylvania, 14 points greater than the national average. A White student from a comparatively prosperous family in Pennsylvania is approximately five times as likely to be brought to grade level in eighth grade reading as a Black student from a low-income family. A Black student from a comparatively prosperous family in Pennsylvania is not as likely to read at or above grade level in eighth grade as is a White student eligible for the National Lunch Program.
In Pennsylvania, it is the color of your skin, not just the color of your money, which counts.
As with fourth grade, in eighth grade the lack of educational opportunities for African-American students is especially acute in the urban districts. More than 90 percent of Black students from lower income families in city schools are not taught to read at grade level in middle school and half are left functionally illiterate. Even middle class Black students are denied a meaningful education in the state’s urban schools: Just 12 percent of them are taught to read at grade level in eighth grade. It is not that the schools are unable to teach their students to read.
Twenty percent of lower income White students in city schools read proficiently in eighth grade, as do more than half of urban middle class White students. And in suburban schools nearly a third of lower income and nearly two-thirds of middle class White students are taught to read proficiently.
In Pennsylvania, it is the color of your skin, not just the location of your school, which counts.
The reality of the failure of the state’s education system is partially hidden behind the inflated results reported by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. In 2016, the state reported that 58 percent of eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced (grade) levels, while 11 read Below Basic. This doesn’t square with the National Assessment of Eduational Progress, which reports that only 40 percent of Keystone State eighth-graders were Proficient and above in reading while 22 percent scored Below Basic.
As we know by now, NAEP is considered “the gold standard” of education assessment. The PSSA does not meet that standard. The children of Pennsylvania are not well-served by an assessment system that conceals the deficiencies of their schools.
But Black children in Pennsylvania aren’t just punished with low-quality education. The overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other harsh traditional forms of school discipline also damage their prospects.
A study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center has established that school discipline practices are a good indicator of the racial prejudices of the adults in the schools. The researchers found that disciplinary actions by teachers and school administrators for subjective issues, “attitude” and such, were much more likely against African-American than White or Hispanic students, while those for actions that can be objectively assessed, such as violence, were more evenly distributed among the racial and ethnic groups.
As with crime statistics, which measure police and prosecutor activity, not simply the activities of those arrested, so school discipline data is a measure of the activities and attitudes of teachers and administrators, not just those of students. This can be seen in Pennsylvania, where more than five times the percentage of Black students (17 percent) as White students (three percent) were given at least one out-of-school suspension.
It has been found that out-of-school suspensions, like expulsions, are an efficient way to discourage students from completing their educations.
What about graduation rates? The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate reported by Pennsylvania for the 2014-15 school year was 72 percent for Black students and 89 percent for White students. Given that only 13 percent of Black students and 47 percent of White students were reading at grade level in 2011, when they were in eighth grade, it appears that just nine percent of Black students in Pennsylvania who began their high school education four years earlier and less than half (42 percent) of White students received their diplomas while reading at eighth-grade proficiency or better.
The value of the state’s high school diplomas for college and career readiness has been measured by the College Board. According to the College Board, in 2015 just 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s African-American SAT takers met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark. Of course, only those students considering college take the SAT.
This is clear: Pennsylvania educates its White students, and does not educate its Black students, so that three times the former as the latter read at grade level in middle school. On average, just 9 percent of the Black students who begin high school in Pennsylvania, and less than half of the White students, graduate reading proficiently.
That is not a good record for White students. It is a catastrophe for Black students.
Two-thirds of African-Americans in the state of Pennsylvania live in just three counties: Philadelphia, neighboring Delaware and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh). The responsibility for the catastrophic educational failure of the schools in the state can be attributed to the administrations of the districts in those counties, particularly Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The professed mission of the School District of Philadelphia is to provide to “every child in Philadelphia an excellent public school education and ensure all children graduate from high school ready to succeed, fully engaged as a citizen of our world.” The Board of the Pittsburgh Public Schools states in its mission statement that “We will hold ourselves accountable for preparing all children to achieve academic excellence and strength of character, so that they have the opportunity to succeed in all aspects of life.”
The four-year graduation rate for Philadelphia’s Black students is just 61 percent; that for Pittsburgh’s can be estimated at 64 percent. Very few of these graduates are “career- and college-ready.” Fewer than ten percent were able to read proficiently when in eighth grade; fewer met the College Board’s standard for college and career readiness. They are, instead, prepared to reproduce the trajectory of their parents’ generation, with little chance of upward socio-economic mobility and a good chance of a life of poverty.
Who is responsible? These people are responsible: The School Reform Commission of Philadelphia, controlled by the governor of the state, is responsible for the failure of the Philadelphia schools to educate most of its African-America students; the Superintendent and Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Schools, for its failure to educate most of its African-American students. The state’s Secretary of Education and the state Board of Education; the state legislature and the governor are responsible for the race-based allocation of educational opportunities throughout Pennsylvania.
Most directly the governor and the two big-city district superintendents should be held accountable for failing to preparing all children so that they have the opportunity to succeed in life.