A momentous election and a huge stimulus check for school improvement must mean that things are looking pretty good for high school students of color these days.
With Pres. Barack Obama in place as role-model-in-chief, African-American parents now have another shining example to which they can point when they tell their children about the possibilities this nation has to offer. And Congress has made billions available for states to address the distribution of effective teachers, educational data systems, and other sorely needed reforms.
It is tempting to take these promising signs to mean that solving the problem of educational inequities is a fait accompli. Yet regardless of Pres. Obama’s achievements and the investment of stimulus funds, the fact remains that, like their peers across the nation, nearly half of African-American students in the state the president represented in Congress will not graduate from high school. On average, African-American 17-year-olds read at the same level as white 13-year-olds. And African-American students are more likely than whites to attend dropout factories–high schools where no more than 60 percent of the entering first year class makes it to their senior year.
For these young people, educational disparities present an often insurmountable barrier to success. An economic recovery package that ignores their needs is a colossal mistake with serious long-term implications. The American high school is the front on which we must continue the struggle for civil rights and equality for all. And it is on this same front that we must act if the nation is to achieve long-term economic viability.
Developing a strong workforce for tomorrow requires fostering future business and civic leadership through high-quality high school education today. The payoff for our community in employability and economic growth will ensure a role for America in the global marketplace. For example, had the more than 1.2 million dropouts from the high school class of 2008 earned their diplomas, the nation’s economy would have seen an additional $319 billion in income over the course of those students’ lifetimes.
Today we are far from this ideal. Of all incoming ninth graders, two-thirds—comprising an overrepresentation of students of color and youth from low-income neighborhoods—will fail to graduate with the skills they need for college and work.
The African-American community cannot ignore the devastating impact of ineffective education policies that allow too many of our high schools to fail the young people who should be receiving the preparation necessary to take over as America’s social, political and business leaders. By continuing to offer inadequate solutions to America’s education crisis, we are willingly confining too many of our children to segregated and sub-standard education and we are forfeiting their futures.
The stimulus package offers a beginning toward reform. To make the change significant and sustainable, our policymakers must focus on preparing all students for college and work, holding high schools accountable for student achievement and graduation, and providing adequate resources. It is also important to collect and report data that identify which schools and students are most in need of help to improve performance. School districts must receive the support to implement effective high school models that support different learning styles and meet student needs. And, the nation must find a way to place highly effective school leaders and teachers in high-need high schools.
On the campaign trail, Pres. Obama asked the nation to hold him to the promises laid out in his “Plan for Lifelong Success through Education.” This call for accountability sets a standard that must be applied to our nation’s high schools. As his administration makes good on promises to prioritize reform, Congress must examine opportunities within existing legislation to improve student access to a high-quality education. We are making progress toward closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students, but federal leadership and the strong, ceaseless voice of the African-American community is necessary to truly eliminate inequity in American public education. This way, we can make graduation for African American students and every student the rule, not the exception.
Michael Wotorson is executive director of the Campaign for High School Equity, a Washington, D.C.-based policy group.