When President Barack Obama took the oath of office a year ago as the first African American to hold the position, many around the world were optimistic about the era of hope and change he promised. This optimism was perhaps felt most acutely by our African-American youth, who could proudly believe in the opportunity-for-all attitude that made our country a global leader.
Yet now, as our global leadership is called into question, we can’t offer our young people much better than a 50 percent chance of graduating from high school, even as more than 70 percent of all students graduate from high school nationwide.
Two out of every five Black students attend “drop-out factories” -- high schools where no more than 60 percent of the entering freshman class makes it to senior year. These schools produce 73 percent of all African-American high school dropouts, as well as 81 percent of Native American dropouts and 66 percent of Latino dropouts. Unless change comes, and comes soon, we risk creating a permanent underclass of individuals who cannot provide for themselves and their families and are prevented from actively participating in our democracy.
Research shows that lower levels of education hinder job prospects for our young people, and the less education young people -- particularly males -- receive, the more likely they are to be arrested or incarcerated. Unfortunately, we’re seeing this research play out in today’s challenging economic times. According to the National Urban League, African Americans are twice as likely as Whites to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty, and more than six times as likely to be incarcerated. With more than 1.2 million African Americans in prisons across the country, it is clear that by failing students of color, America’s high schools are complicit in destroying the dreams of our children and endangering our nation’s economic future.
In his first address before a joint session of Congress, President Obama declared that by 2020 our nation would again lead the world in college graduation. His administration has demonstrated that they understand the relationship between education and economy. They realize that to be global financial leaders, we must be leaders in education. But in order to achieve this goal, we must substantially increase the number of people of color who attend and graduate from college. Without high schools that prepare each and every student for success in college and career, it simply won’t happen. Without federal education policies that hold high schools accountable for student success, opportunity-for-all ideals will never become reality.
Federal education policies must hold high schools accountable for student success, provide schools with adequate resources, and allow school districts the flexibility to implement a variety of high school models. Since teachers are the single most important factor influencing academic outcomes, we must also find a way to attract highly effective teachers to serve in high-need high schools. And we must solidify these reforms as part of a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act sooner than later.
Even given the multiple challenges with which his presidency has been saddled, President Obama has made improving schools a priority, as has his Secretary of Education. As part of the administration’s economic stimulus program, education grants like Race to the Top provide funding tied to reforms in standards, data collection, the teacher workforce, and improving low-performing schools. To again instill hope among young African Americans, we need high school education reform that delivers on the promise of opportunity and equity. Access to a high-quality education and to highly effective teachers should be the right of every child, not a luxury.
Michael T.S. Wotorson is executive director of the Campaign for High School Equity in Washington, D.C.
See Also: Educator Steve Perry Takes on America's Failing Schools