VIEWPOINTS: When Black Students Are Failing, It's Time for a New Approach

It’s the type of thing that occasionally makes Twitter lose its virtual mind, and maybe in a good way. Frederick Joseph, a 29-year old Harlem based activist, took it upon himself to start a GoFundMe campaign to buy advance complimentary tickets for at-risk black youth to see eagerly anticipated hit Marvel Comics’ movie Black Panther.  Millions of social media handles in the Black Twitterverse were ecstatic, applauding Joseph for the move.
“I knew I wanted to do something for the children, especially of Harlem, because it was a community primarily of color,” Joseph later said during a CNN interview. “I said to myself, how can I get as many children as possible to see this film and see themselves as a superhero or a king or queen?”
Black Panther, with its timely Black History Month release, has eventually become a global box office hit that has many looking for the needed emotional and cultural comfort.  Times are urgent, social justice challenges are constant and there has always been a sense that Black History is not as appreciated as it should be.  Even when it is as deeply woven into the very foundation and pillars of American society, defining and shaping who we all are, it still suffers from the tragedy of convenient cruelty and selective national memory. Indeed, we could all use a Black History Month observance and a healthy dose of Black History lesson.
[pullquote]But, what sense does it make to celebrate Black History when the condition of our Black youth suggests it may not have much of a future?[/pullquote]
But, what sense does it make to celebrate Black History when the condition of our Black youth suggests it may not have much of a future?
The dilemma with Black History Month memoriam is that it carries with it a tendency to tell ourselves that great progress has been achieved.  Yet, in terms of educating African American youth, we appear to regress. More important than free tickets to Black Panther matinee showings are functioning educational systems and access to quality alternatives and opportunities. Progress is unreachable when a community fails to reach its academic and intellectual zenith.
African American high school students still lag considerably behind their white and Latino peers. A Johns Hopkins University study of 2015 national graduation rates found they were 74.6 percent for Black students versus 77.8 percent for Latino students and 83.2 percent for whites.  The discourse on these rates has simmered somewhat and given us all the impression that we’ve somehow solved the dropout crisis.
Clearly, we haven’t.  More than a quarter of black high school students are dropping out, and it’s more pronounced in some states than in others.
Something systemic continues to eat away at full Black student educational progress.  While we have seen the narrowing of math and reading test score gaps between Black and white students, 8th grade math score test results compared against white students are worsening more for Black students than for Latino students. And even though 65 percent of Black high school graduates go on to college, just 39 percent of them remain there and finish with a bachelor’s degree.
What’s going on?  Quite a bit. As National Equity Atlas data show, Black students are stuck in high poverty school districts – the majority of Black students in half of the largest U.S. cities go to schools where three quarters of students are considered. Other studies, such as one at Stanford, also prove that high poverty school districts are scoring several grade levels below wealthy school districts.  Black students are much more likely to live in distressed socio-economic circumstances plagued by unemployment, depressed access to financial capitol, little to no social mobility and a merciless school-to-prison pipeline. An overwhelming and destructive number of young Black men, over half, are dropping out of high school or receiving diplomas late. When that happens, we find a situation where 1 in 3 of them end up incarcerated.
The data points are staggering and seemingly endless.  Yet, while depressing, it also presents an opportunity moment. We may not be able to solve the current litany of socio-economic ills cutting off Black youth dreams, but we can certainly start to minimize their impact in the present and begin a path towards eliminating them in the future. That starts with re-examining how we educate our children, and a need for creative thinking and fresh models.
In the information age, it defies logic that we’re still having conversations about learning gaps and divides.  Existing modes of learning, particularly a public education system that insists on being stuck in an Industrial Age past where students sit in buildings all day, is obviously not the most sensible approach.  Instead, educators and school systems must adapt to our highly digitized and fiercely competitive environment – and that doesn’t mean simply putting more laptops in a classroom or increasing the frequency of standardized tests rife with disparities and abuse.
There are encouraging signs that educators are recognizing that the one-classroom-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for everyone. This is the case in a diverse, multi-cultural and multi-faceted society where students on the K-12 level are faced with a variety of socio-economic circumstances.  In fact, white students will only be 46 percent of the public school population by 2024 while Black (15 percent) and brown students (28 percent) will shift into the majority.  We need a radical fix before then.
Which is why it’s encouraging to see school systems and policymakers not only exploring, but implementing new learning models whereby curriculum can be easily tailored to the student. No longer should it be just a classroom: it can be a mix of digital learning, expanded course offerings, experiential learning in the field through institutional partnerships, career and technical education, and more.  Economically-disadvantaged Black students, faced with daunting challenges, need access to the same doors of opportunities that are available to students with greater economic means.
In his seminal, turn of the 20th century work of American sociology entitled The Souls of Black Folk, the great African American thinker W.E.B. DuBois observed that “[t]his meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line.” That problem persists today, aggravated by education gaps that we should deem unacceptable in the 21st century and beyond.  Unchecked, these gaps will prove unsustainable and destructive. This is not just important to our Black students struggling to make their own Black History. It’s absolutely crucial to our collective future and the health of our nation as a whole.
KEVIN P. CHAVOUS is an attorney, author, education leader, and president of academics, policy and schools for K12 Inc. He served as a member of the Council of the District of Columbia from January 1993 to January 2005.

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