There are a lot of institutions in Cleveland that make it seem like a world-class city. There’s the fact that the city of 400,000 people is at the center of a metropolitan area with a population of two million. There’s also the fact that Cleveland is home to a world-class orchestra and an equally fine and renowned art museum. Then you have the presence of Case Western Reserve University, one of the highest-ranking research universities in the United States, and world-renowned medical centers such as the Cleveland Clinic, which bring the international wealthy and famous there to the city for treatment.

this_is_dropout_nation_logoYet none of these institutions have helped end the caste system in which more than half of Cleveland’s residents (including 12-year-old Tamir Rice, whose slaying by a police officer is now being investigated), the descendants of Africans physically enslaved until the end of the Civil War, have been placed since before the birth of this nation.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District enrolled 42,500 students in 2011, 68 percent of whom were African American, 15 percent White, non-Hispanic, and 14 percent Hispanic. The average salary of teachers then was $69,000. Perhaps because of this, the student to teacher ratio was a quite high 17:1. All those comparatively well-paid teachers met state licensing and certification requirements and hardly any were in their first or second year of teaching. On the other hand, a remarkable three-quarters of the district’s teachers were absent more than 10 days of the school year. All of these data in regard to the teaching staff are most unusual, the salaries higher, the proportion of new teachers lower, the student to teacher ratio and teacher absenteeism unusually high.

Cleveland is one of the urban districts analyzed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Eighth grade reading, a key factor, has varied since 2003 for White students in the district from 14 percent scoring at or above grade level (Proficient and above) in 2003 to 26 percent in 2007, and then back down to 19 percent in 2013. Results for the district’s Black students have been less variable: Eight percent at grade level in 2003 and nine percent in 2013. Broken down by gender, just 12 percent of young Black women and six percent of young Black men read at or above proficiency.

Put this another way: Cleveland fails to teach 94 percent of young Black men to read at grade level by eighth grade. For Ohio as a whole, 16 percent of Black students read at grade level in eighth grade, as do 43 percent of White students. In Ohio’s suburban districts, 19 percent of Black students read at grade level, as do 47 percent of White students. In Cleveland, as elsewhere, Black students can at least double their opportunity of learning basic skills by moving to the suburbs.

We can look at this another way by calculating the numbers of students reading at grade level (Proficient and Advanced) with parents at various educational attainment levels by aligning NAEP and Census data. Twenty-three percent of White and 25 percent of Black adults in Cleveland age 25 and older reported to the Census that they had less than a high school diploma; this is equivalent to the NAEP category of “Did not finish high school.” Thirty-five percent of Whites and 36 percent of African Americans said that they were high school graduates with a diploma or GED, equivalent to NAEP’s “Graduated high school.” Twenty-four percent of Whites and 31 percent of African Americans reported some college or associate’s degree, equivalent to “Some education after high school” and 17 percent of Whites and 8 percent of African Americans reported attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher: “Graduated College.”

None of the 2,100 eighth grade Black students whose parents didn’t finish high school read at or above grade level. Thirty Black students report that one of their parents completed high school while they themselves read at grade level. 131 Black students read at grade level in eighth grade and have at least one parent who had some college. And 15 Black students at eighth grade read at grade level and report that at least one of their parents has a college degree. [The number of Black students in eighth grade reading at grade level who are the children of college graduates is lower than that of those whose parents have “some college” because there are few adult Black college graduates in in the city.] Whichever way you calculate it, fewer than 10 percent of eighth-grade Black students in Cleveland have been taught to read at or above grade level.


Ohio state prisons such as Lebanon State near Dayton are where Cleveland’s dropouts go.

But Cleveland has a “Plan for Transforming Schools” which was the subject of a Dropout Nation commentary two years ago. It has as its goal “to ensure that every child in Cleveland attends a high-quality school and that every neighborhood has a multitude of great schools from which families can choose. This includes expanding public charter schools. This only works if charter schools in Ohio were of high-quality. Sadly, in part because of shoddy authorizing, this isn’t so. Just 17 percent of eighth-graders attending Ohio’s charters in 2013 were at or above Proficient in reading; this is lower than for traditional public and other schools, where 40 percent of students read at or above Proficient. Just 10 percent of Black charter school students read at or above Proficient in reading, versus 19 percent of peers in traditional and other schools.

High school graduation rates for Cleveland students in 2011-2012 were 42 percent for both Black students, that is, nearly 60 percent of those students enrolled in grade 9 in 2008-09 did not graduate at the end of the 2011-12 school year. Given that 90 percent of Black students in eighth grade cannot read at grade level, it is remarkable that the district manages to graduate as many students as it does.

Perhaps we should look at this more closely: How well-prepared are those graduates?

Cuyahoga Community College is the area’s postsecondary institution of first resort, as it were. In a recent year it admitted 2,100 first-time students. 90 of these received Associate’s degrees. 780 of those admitted were Black, 316 of whom were men. Eleven of those Black students, 4 of whom were men, received Associate’s degrees in the standard 150 percent of normal time. Those 11 of 780 Black students were not necessarily all from Cleveland, nor were all four of the Black males who benefitted in this way.

Other students attend Cleveland State University, hoping to obtain baccalaureate degrees, which is increasingly vital for employment, middle class incomes and, for Black men, avoidance of incarceration. Cleveland State University’s first-time degree-seeking undergraduates in fall 2006 totaled nearly a thousand, 241 of whom were Black; 73 of those were men. 318 of that cohort, 39 of whom were Black, seven of whom were young Black men, received baccalaureates. Not all those 32 Black women and seven Black men who grasped the brass ring of a four-year degree from Cleveland State University were necessarily from Cleveland. Some of those successful Black undergraduates probably came from elsewhere in Cuyahoga County, elsewhere in Ohio, or further afield. Finally, to round out the sample, Case Western Reserve, a national research university, admitted 1,015 first time undergraduate students in fall 2006, 66 of whom were Black and 22 of whom were young Black men. Nearly 800 of that group received Bachelor’s degrees. Fewer than 50 of those were Black, just 14 were Black men. Not all of these, as well, would necessarily have been graduates of the Cleveland public schools.

Given the nature of these results, exact percentages hardly matter. We have something like 3,000 Black students going into the district’s high schools, 1,600 graduating, 11 receiving Associate’s degrees and 89 Bachelor’s degrees within six years. It is clear that the district almost totally fails to prepare its Black students, and, in particular, young Black men in its schools, for college or careers likely to produce an income sufficient to support a family, or provide them with the type of background necessary to fully appreciate the remarkable holdings of the Cleveland Museum of Art, or the offerings available during the season in Severance Hall.

It does, however, “prepare” many young Black men in the city for incarceration. Which is hardly world-class.