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Working In These Times

Friday, Aug 20, 2010, 8:39 am

A Deeper Look into Black-White Graduation Gaps

BY Michelle Chen

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(Photo by Getty Images)

It appears that despite Washington's attempts to close the racial "achievement gap," the educational colorline still looms over Black youth.

According to a study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, fewer than half of Black male students graduated from high school on time in the 2007-2008 school year, compared to 78 percent of their white peers—a gap of more than 30 percent. Since educational attainment is closely linked to economic prospects, the study affirms what advocates have long argued about the roots of the country's structural racism. It's another indictment of an educational system that tracks children of color into an adulthood rife with social and economic inequality.

The study's results varied by state. In New York, for instance, Black male graduation has slid down over the years to a dismal 25 percent, leaving a Black-white gap of more than 40 percent. The rate in neighboring New Jersey, however, was more than 65 percent. The report attributes the relative success to the state's aggressive Abbott reform plan, which targeted resources to close racial gaps.

Beyond graduation rates, the Schott study displayed vast disparities between between Black and white youth in suspension rates and the proportion of students labeled mentally retarded.

Though everyone can agree that the findings are disturbing, the nexus of race, academic achievement and socioeconomic status demands a more nuanced analysis. Earlier this year, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) warned that the common measurement of graduation data is misleading. In EPI's analysis, more comprehensive data from the National Education Longitudinal Study “show overall national graduation rates of 82%, and rates for black and Hispanic students of about 75%.”

More broadly, economic inequality itself must be addressed in any conversation about how to bring opportunity to children in Black communities. Fixating on graduation rates alone may promote a data-crazed approach to school reform and a drive to find a one-size-fits-all formula to get kids to pass their exams. The AFL-CIO has accused the media of using the study to “scapegoat” teachers, rather than examine other systemic factors behind low achievement.

The Schott study lists various “conditions for success,” including better facilities, universal high-quality preschool; equitable funding; and rigorous curricula with intensive programs for kids living in poverty.

But the most critical research on this issue looks beyond graduation statistics. The EPI's 2008 Report Card on Comprehensive Equity focuses on education in a wider social context. Their assessment criteria included social skills, critical thinking ability, physical and emotional health, and preparedness for skilled work. The report reveals that students' interactions with their communities and families are a fuller measure of success than the number of diplomas schools churn out each year.

For instance, how time is spent outside class is a key factor in educational success. The EPI found that “35 percent of black children watch six hours or more of television a day, compared to 17 percent of white children.”

While teachers today are pressured to narrow the curriculum to boost scores, the EPI reported that “approximately 25 percent of the black-white academic achievement gap is associated with differences in the health of black and white children, and in the health behaviors of their mothers.” Still, Black families proved to be especially attentive on certain positive measures, such as instilling a sense of ethnic heritage in their children.

While the research shows that family support and health are critical to educational achievement, another EPI study suggests that educational attainment alone doesn't offset the impact of employment discrimination.

Neither the EPI nor the Schott study lays out a political reform agenda, but the findings suggest a dire lack of vision among policymakers when it comes to closing the achievement gap.

Ending educational inequity and turning back the cycle of poverty in Black communities isn't just an academic challenge, but a civil rights issue. It's deeply tied to the environments in which children of color grown up, and to which they will ultimately return. So a high school diploma is no small achievement for a Black boy growing up under tough circumstances. But that piece of paper isn't worth much in a society that doesn't really value the child who earned it.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the "Belabored" podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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