A new study that laments the gap between the graduation rates of black males and other high school students includes an important aside that deserves its own attention.
In many large, urban school districts, white males aren't really doing much better. For example, in the 2007-08 school year, only 28 percent of black males graduated on time in Philadelphia public schools, according to the study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. But the rate for white males was only 33 percent.
It seems Philadelphia schools are providing an equal opportunity to fail. But they are not alone. In addition to Philadelphia, there was only a tiny gap of 5 percentage points or less between the low graduation rates of blacks and whites in Cleveland, Baltimore, and several other urban school districts.
Meanwhile in Detroit, the graduation rate for black males was only 27 percent, but it was a terrible 19 percent for white males. The Schott study said the numbers show that white, non-Hispanic students also do poorly in schools with low black graduation rates.
In other words, race isn't what causes a student to fail.
In fact, the graduation rate for black males in Newark was 75 percent in 2007-08 (up from 47 percent in 2001-02), compared with 62 percent for white males in 2007-08. Credit for Newark's success was given to the Abbott court ruling that ordered the state to give more money to poor schools. But that formula has been replaced by one that distributes school aid more equitably.
The Schott report also showed that on a statewide basis, black males across America are falling further behind their white peers. Nationally, only 47 percent of black males graduated on time, compared with 78 percent of whites.
New Jersey was the only state with a significant black male population with a graduation rate for that group above 65 percent. But the state's 69 percent graduation rate for black males was far exceeded by the 90 percent for white males.
In Pennsylvania, 53 percent of black males graduated, compared with 83 percent for whites. Those big gaps can't be overcome without addressing the education deficiencies that are hurting both black and white students, especially in urban districts.
Schott Foundation CEO John H. Jackson said the scattershot approach to school reform nationally, focusing on individual programs that work in some cities, isn't the answer. "We cannot become so affixed on the spotlights that we constructively ignore the headlights from the train wreck facing our country," he said.
Not content to spit out numbers, the Schott study also lists bad practices that produce failing students. Among them:
Insufficient access to high-quality preschool education.
Watered-down curriculums for disadvantaged students.
Large classes, short days, and no weekend or summer programs.
Few social and health services.
Old, overcrowded, and ill-maintained facilities.
Inexperienced and ill-trained teachers.
Little or no state accountability to ensure student progress.
Lack of parent and community engagement.
The study also assailed the tendency to discipline black male students more harshly, and to exile them to special-education classes while recommending few for gifted courses. In short, improving all graduation rates must begin with early education, and must address barriers to learning both at school and at home.