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Held Back 

The Miserable State of Black Education

Wednesday, Jan 19 2000
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First, a warning: The story you’re about to read is not news. It‘s not even a new development in an old story, an update in the strict sense of the word. Many people believe, not too privately, that this story doesn’t really have what the news business calls a hook, a prominent element of conflict or urgency that would at least qualify it to hover in the wings waiting for a shot at publication or airtime after the more timely stuff -- war, celebrity divorces, ethnic festivals -- get theirs. This story isn‘t at the back of the line -- it’s not even in line, and hasn‘t been in years. It has its sympathizers in the editorial echelons of newsrooms, but no real ground-level advocates. Yet it’s the biggest single reason why ”disproportionately represented“ has become black people‘s middle name, why too many of them wind up in prison or poverty or the minimum-wage loop, generally on the wrong side of any statistics that measure social well-being. Despite the very dire consequences of ignoring this story, it stopped being a story long ago and simply became Fate, which no reporter or news anchor wants to touch; if there’s no reason for a follow-up announcing that somebody high up got nervous and started doing something differently, the story won‘t get written in the first place. This story doesn’t inspire nervousness. Contempt, disgust, resignation, an urge to flee and seek higher ground, yes -- but nervousness, a feeling of something close about to fall hard on your shoulders, no. This story is grave but distant, like death, or the 8-point earthquake that won‘t, of course, happen in our lifetime.

The story is the miserable state of black education. Actually, the story is why it’s still so miserable after years of desegregation battles, civil rights activism and mounting evidence that without a sturdy education, one can kiss one‘s fortunes in the new millennium goodbye. Before anyone starts vigorously pointing to the groundbreaking prosperity of the black middle class in the last couple of decades, let me say: I know. I’m among the brave new petit bourgeois myself. But the fact is that far more of us are being left behind -- permanently -- than are being moved ahead, and those moving ahead are chiefly advantaged by -- you guessed it -- education. With all due respect to the Rev. Creflo Dollar and his Trinity Broadcasting ilk, black improvement is largely a blessing of degrees, not God. Which leaves us with the conundrum of knowing exactly how to solve the problem (we‘ve always known -- black people more than any other group have clung to the notion of education as the great equalizer), yet not giving the solution the stature it deserves because it seems, well, passe. Or something even less appealing, and less admissible. ”Our fault as a [black] community is that we’ve allowed this to happen,“ says Theodore Alexander, a longtime assistant superintendent in the Los Angeles Unified School District. ”Sure, we have a middle class that‘s made advances, but when you look at the number of kids who aren’t going anywhere . . . We‘ve sacrificed those kids for the betterment of a few.“ The outrage of the past, in other words, turned out to be for sale. The price of complacency has been steep, and we’re still paying it. ”The problem is, what was once considered a problem is now pretty much regarded as a circumstance,“ says George McKenna III, a veteran educator who is now deputy superintendent in the beleaguered, roughly half-black Compton school district. ”A circumstance is just the way things are. It‘s accepted by everybody -- white, black, brown. And that’s the end of it.“

But the stuff of outrage remains. Here‘s a start: In L.A. Unified, black students as a group are at the bottom of the heap in terms of standardized test scores; they’ve been there for as long as anybody I talked to can remember. (Random examples from the latest stats: White first-graders scored in the 65th percentile in math, blacks in the 35th -- four points below the district average. White ninth-graders scored in the 47th percentile in reading, blacks in the 22nd.) Black students, particularly black males, are increasingly overrepresented in special-education classes (though only 16 percent of the general student population, they make up 20 percent of the special-ed population), in part because they tend to be identified early as having behavioral or emotional problems, which are invariably linked to academic problems -- and once you‘re on the special-ed track, you tend not to get off. Historically black schools that have become substantially Latino in the last decade but with the highest concentrations of black students in the district -- Crenshaw, Dorsey, Washington, Locke, Fremont, Jordan -- have the highest numbers of uncredentialed and absentee teachers (28 percent of all uncredentialed teachers work in District 1, an inner-city district that includes several of these schools). Schools in relatively affluent areas that have imported black populations -- such as Westchester, Hamilton and many San Fernando Valley high school campuses -- have similar problems of black underachievement. (Example: At Westchester, black 10th-graders scored in the 24th percentile in reading, whites in the 52nd.) Location doesn’t seem to be much of a factor.

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