Cynthia Tucker: Dropout rate among black boys cause for concern
The cover photo for a new report on black boys' educational attainment is sunny and optimistic, showing a boy of about 11, dressed in shirt and tie, beaming as he meets the president of the United States, Barack Obama. But the news that follows the photo is, in the words of a leading educator, "nightmarish," with few rays of sunshine.
The research from the Massachusetts-based Schott Foundation on Public Education shows that more than half — 53 percent — of black male students drop out of high school without a diploma, compared to 22 percent of white males. It's a stunning statistic that foretells a permanent underclass, forever stuck outside the American mainstream. If I ran the NAACP, the National Urban League or the troubled Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I'd make my single priority hammering away at that awful statistic and working to change the fate of those young black men.
Nothing is more important to the future of black America than reclaiming 53 percent — more than half — of its young black men from educational failure, which will lead, inevitably, to unemployment, irresponsible fatherhood and the temptations of crime. If you wanted to guarantee the decline of a community — or a nation — in the 21st century, you could hardly do better than to impose academic failure on half its young men.
But the depressing dropout rate is not the result of malice directed by outside forces; it's not the culmination of a campaign of racism or the inevitable result of centuries of oppression. Black boys are failing even in public school systems with black superintendents, black principals and black teachers.
According to the Schott Foundation, which tracked black boys who entered high school in 2003 to find whether they had graduated by 2008, some of the worst graduation rates are in school districts, such as New Orleans and Detroit, that have, in recent history, been led by black administrators and predominantly black school boards. You can point to some residual racism — such as the disproportionate rate of suspensions and expulsions for black students — but that hardly explains everything.
Schott's president, John Jackson, suggests that the cure lies in more money for failing schools. He points to the experience of New Jersey, where graduation rates for black males have soared since a court settlement forced the state to increase spending in poorer schools.
Still, I doubt crimped finances are at the heart of black boys' educational failure. For decades, urban districts have spent taxpayers' money freely, with little to show for it. (Jackson's recommendation that states spend more on early childhood education, however, is backed up by extensive research, which shows gains for kids with good preschool teachers.)
Educational experts would undoubtedly point to a host of factors that have kept black boys on the road to jail, rather than Yale. They would also point to the rare programs that have turned the tide, such as Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone.
But there is also a bit of mystery about black boys' academic failures: On the whole, black girls are doing much better in school, overcoming family dysfunction and poverty that have sabotaged their brothers. Why?
And why don't more educational leaders and civil rights activists care that we're losing so many young black men to stunted prospects? Why isn't this the subject of sermons in black churches, speeches by black politicians and protests by black activists?
In fact, President Barack Obama's proposals for education reform haven't been greeted with enthusiasm by his black constituents. And the District of Columbia's mayor, Adrian Fenty, was defeated in Tuesday's Democratic primary largely because his reform-minded schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is so unpopular. Never mind that she has raised test schools in a school system whose student enrollment is overwhelmingly black.
Perhaps that's the bigger mystery: Why haven't the adults who profess to care about them done more to help black boys succeed?