Education: The Path to Success for African Americans

Article excerpt

As our country is emerging from, the worst recession in a generation, there's one lesson we have learned: Education matters more than ever. Throughout the recession, those who have a bachelor's degree faired much better than high school dropouts. Now we know for certain that education is the one true path out of poverty and into economic security. It's the reason that education is the civil rights issue of our time.

As a country, we profess that children shouldn't be denied a world-class education based on the color of their skin, their family's income, or their zip code. But the promise of a world-class education system is being deferred for African Americans all across the country.

The evidence is shocking. The achievement gap is unacceptably large. The average black child is two or three grade levels behind the average white child. About half our African American students fail to graduate on time. Only one in five blacks over the age of 25 has a bachelor's degree. Without a college degree, African Americans aren't prepared a future where they will prosper, become leaders of their communities, and be leaders for the next generation. In short, too many in the black community are being denied the American dream. Solving the problem starts with improving education.

We are starting to see excellent results in some schools serving African Americans in some of the toughest neighborhoods. They are enrolling students who are mostly black and mostly poor. Most of these students are reading below grade level when they enter. After a few years, those same students are passing state tests at rates unheard of in neighborhood schools. In these schools, the leaders are telling their students that they will graduate and go to college. Most of them fulfill that dream. Right now, these schools are the exception. But we know that schools such as Urban Prep in Chicago, the Harlem Children Zone Promise Academy in New York City, and the Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News, Virginia, are preparing their students for success in life. The biggest question facing education today is: Now that we know what success looks like, why do we tolerate failure? And the biggest question facing the black community is: How can we help these schools and their students thrive and envision a future where they are full participants in America's economic and political life?

The educational success of African-American students isn't simply a concern for the black community. It's an issue that all Americans must address. Last year, McKenzie & Company estimated that our gross domestic product would have been up to $525 billion higher each year if we closed the achievement gap. The gap is large enough to cause what McKenzie characterized as "a permanent national recession." Other researchers say the lack of educational opportunity takes a toll on the greater economy. High school dropouts are more likely to go to jail, have higher health care costs, and require greater government assistance than high school graduates. Solving the education crisis in the black community is a concern for every American.

President Obama has a cradle-to-career agenda that will reform our schools and improve the educational outcomes for all of our students, particularly those who are poor and disadvantaged.

The agenda starts with $9.3 billion over the next decade for early learning programs. We'll create incentives for states to improve the quality of their programs so their students are prepared to succeed in kindergarten.

In K-12 education, we're supporting reforms through the Race to the Top program and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

We want states to raise their standards so all students will be prepared to succeed in college and careers. For too long, states have lowered their expectations and their students haven't been prepared to succeed once their graduate. That has to change. To do that, we know that we'll need our best teachers where they're needed the most - in classrooms where students are struggling. …