December 10, 2015

The Path Forward: Improving Opportunities for African-American Students


In July 2000, while still on the presidential campaign trail, then-Texas governor George W. Bush addressed the 91st annual NAACP convention. During his speech, he spoke about how as President he would work to bridge historical divides that have separated American citizens from one another, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and in our social institutions.

In making his case, he said his goal was to dispel the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” a phrase that would follow him for his entire presidency and would live on after he left the White House. Specifically, the Bush administration worked to pass No Child Left Behind in 2002, which for the first time held every school in the nation accountable for how well ALL students achieved.

The Obama administration built on these efforts through Race to the Top, which encouraged states to evaluate teachers, adopt college-and career-ready standards, and open more charter schools. These federal efforts, paired with decades of work at the state and local level represent an extended, concerted effort to improve education for all students, and an unprecedented opportunity to discover weaknesses and focus efforts to improve on the academic performance of students of color.

But the struggle continues.

To be certain, all states and all student sub-groups are performing at a level that should spur us to action—it is not only African-American student performance numbers that should raise concern. The purpose of this report, however, is to offer a portrait of the performance of African-American students in the United States today. How have interventions to improve the quality of education gone? Where are African-American students succeeding? Where are the places that are struggling? Where are there opportunities that passionate leaders can take advantage of to improve the lives of African-American children?

Over the past 25 years, the performance of African-American students on key academic success indicators has improved, in some cases markedly. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an exam given to a representative sample of students every two years since the 1970s, the percentage of African-American students deemed proficient in 4th and 8th grade reading and math have increased significantly. Graduation rates for African-American students are up as well, and the nationwide average of 71% represents significant progress. It could be inferred that many of these improvements follow from NCLB’s stricter accountability standards. The requirement that states set academic achievement goals for sub-group populations, disaggregate data to bring shortcomings to light, and intervene when goals are not met remains groundbreaking. Accountability can do wonders for motivation.

In absolute terms, though, there is much more room for improvement. On the 2015 NAEP, only 18% of African-American 4th graders were found to be proficient in reading and only 19% scored proficient in math. The 8th grade numbers were even worse, with only 15% of African-American students rated proficient in reading and only 12% rated proficient in math. Only 3 states saw more than 5% of the African-Americans in their graduating class pass at least 1 Advanced Placement (AP) STEM exam during high school and 4 states saw less than 1% of African-American students graduate having passed 1 of these exams. No state with at least 500 African-American ACT takers saw more than 17% score college-ready on all four tested subjects.

It is easy to look at this report and despair. It puts front and center the fact that too many of our nation’s young people are failing to achieve their potential, and that African-American students are disproportionately impacted by the shortcomings in our education system. We need to continue to constantly strive for improvements and identify solutions that work well for students. We can use the information contained in this report to continue making the case for changes that will benefit all students.

Many company-, state-, and community-based programs are targeting low-income students and students of color for support services. They are working to increase interest in STEM among students of color. In order to find the right solutions for a region or a school, we need to understand where we are and put the pedal to the metal on opening up opportunities and capitalize on efforts that can demonstrate results. Like most things in education reform, it is unlikely that there is a silver bullet or one-size-fits-all approach that will work across the board. However, there are elements of promising programs that should be shared to see if it is a “fit” your community. Samplings of these programs are included in the report to showcase how to get results and expand opportunities for students of color.

By staying the course on accountability, promoting school choice, working with industry, and focusing on students in the greatest need, we can work to turn around these numbers in ways that will significantly benefit African-American students who deserve a high-quality education experience that will prepare them for the path forward.

Click on the link below to download the report.