Ralph Ellison, celebrated author of Invisible Man, spoke in September 1963 at a teachers’ conference “…to discuss ‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again.” Ellison was addressing the educational failures of African American children in U.S. public schools, including drop outs.
Rejecting the prevalent deficit perspective of his era, Ellison bravely asserted, “There is no such thing as a culturally deprived kid.” In his confrontation of stereotypes about race and poverty as well as the historical failure of public education to challenge the racism and inequity of mid-twentieth century America, Ellison concluded with:
I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.
The Urgency of Now, a 2012 report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education, highlights that fifty years after Ellison’s speech the drop-out rate for African American males, along with the drop-out rates for Latino males, remains inexcusably high across the U.S.:
A new report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education finds that only 52 percent of Black male and 58 percent of Latino male ninth-graders graduate from high school four years later, while 78 percent of White, non-Latino male ninth-graders graduate four years later….
Among the states with the largest Black enrollments, North Carolina (58%), Maryland (57%), and California (56%) have the highest graduation rates for Black males, while New York (37%), Illinois (47%) and Florida (47%) have the lowest. Arizona (84%) and Minnesota (65%) were the only states within the top ten ranked states, in graduation rates, with over 10,000 Black males enrolled. Among the states with the highest enrollments of Latinos, Arizona (68%), New Jersey (66%) and California (64%) have the highest graduation rates for Latino males, while New York (37%), Colorado (46%) and Georgia (52%) have the lowest. (See Press Release)
Released September 2012, The Civil Rights Project‘s E Pluribus…Separation reports that racial segregation has increased for Latinos and African American students:
This report shows segregation has increased dramatically across the country for Latino students, who are attending more intensely segregated and impoverished schools than they have for generations. The segregation increases have been the most dramatic in the West. The typical Latino student in the region attends a school where less than a quarter of their classmates are white; nearly two-thirds are other Latinos; and two-thirds are poor. California, New York and Texas, all states that have been profoundly altered by immigration trends over the last halfcentury, are among the most segregated states for Latino students along multiple dimensions.
In spite of declining residential segregation for black families and large-scale movement to the suburbs in most parts of the country, school segregation remains very high for black students. It is also double segregation by both race and poverty. Nationwide, the typical black student is now in a school where almost two out of every three classmates (64%) are lowincome, nearly double the level in schools of the typical white or Asian student (37% and 39%, respectively). New York, Illinois, and Michigan consistently top the list of the most segregated states for black students. Among the states with significant black enrollments, blacks are least likely to attend intensely segregated schools in Washington, Nebraska, and Kansas.
These reports, combined with studies conducted by Schott and Brookings on school inequity reflecting economic inequity, confront two enduring narratives about drop-out rates and the power of education to raise children out of poverty. High drop-out rates among children of color are not a crisis, but a historical and systemic reality in the U.S.; and we have little evidence that schools alone or that current school reform paradigms built on accountability erase social inequity.
“Missing the Target”
The accountability era of school reform has directly confronted achievement gaps among subgroups including race, and more recently, that accountability-based agenda has called for a focus on teacher quality. Policy designed to close the so-called achievement gap and raise teacher quality has been driven by standards and high-stakes tests. These solutions have failed to ask some keys questions, such as, Why do so many children of color drop out? And what teacher qualities are best suited to teach well children of color, children trapped in poverty, and children speaking home languages other than English?
Ellison addressed teacher quality in 1963:
The best teacher, it seems to me, for those Negro youngsters who have been so harmed, so maimed by the sudden confrontation of a world that is more complex than any that they are prepared to deal with, is the teacher who can convey to them an awareness that they do indeed come from somewhere, some place of human value, and that what they’ve learned there does count in the larger society.
And by marginalizing children of color through the lens of racism and classism, by trivializing the lived lives of those children and disregarding the complex qualities that cannot be measured in either student learning or teacher quality, Ellison concluded:
We are missing the target, and all of our children are suffering as a result. To be ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed is not the only way to suffer deprivation. …When a child has no sense of how he should fit into the society around him, he is culturally deprived, no matter how high his parents’ income. When a child has no fruitful way of relating the cultural traditions and values of his parents to the diversity of cultural forces with which he must live in a pluralistic society, he is culturally deprived. When he has to spend a great part of his time in the care of a psychoanalyst, he is, again, culturally deprived. Thus I would broaden the definition.
Instead of changing or raising standards (the rush to embrace Common Core State Standards), instead of testing all students more often, instead of labeling and ranking teachers by their students’ test scores, instead of perpetuating school segregation through charter schools and school choice, instead of increasing educational inequity for children of color by investing in Teach for America recruits, public education reform must occur with social reform that addresses inequity in both society and schools.
To address the inequity that feeds high drop-out rates for boys of color, The Urgency of Now recommends:
• End the rampant use of out-of-school suspensions as a default disciplinary action, as it decreases valuable learning time for the most vulnerable students and increases dropouts.
• Expand learning time and increase opportunities for a well-rounded education including the arts, music, physical education, robotics, foreign language, and apprenticeships.
• States and cities should conduct a redlining analysis of school funding, both between and within districts, and work with the community and educators to develop a support-based reform plan with equitable resource distribution to implement sound community school models.
Just as these recommendations do not endorse the narrow curriculum and test-based culture of accountability reform, genuine efforts to raise teacher quality—in part to improve all children’s education and also to address the inequity children of color face in teacher assignments—must avoid test-based reform, according to William Mathis of the National Education Policy Center:
• If the objective is improving educational practice, formative evaluations that guide a teacher’s improvement provide greater benefits than summative evaluations.
• If the objective is to improve educational performance, outside-school factors must also be addressed. Teacher evaluation cannot replace or compensate for these much stronger determinants of student learning. The importance of these outside-school factors should also caution against policies that simplistically attribute student test scores to teachers.
•The results produced by value-added (test-score growth) models alone are highly unstable. They vary from year to year, from classroom to classroom, and from one test to another. Substantial reliance on these models can lead to practical, ethical and legal problems.
• High-stakes evaluations based in substantial part on students’ test scores narrow the curriculum by diminishing or pushing out non-tested subjects, knowledge, and skills.
•Teacher evaluation systems necessarily involve trade-offs, and specific design choices are controversial, so it is important to involve all key stakeholders in system design or selection.
•To be successful, schools must invest in their teacher evaluation systems. An adequate number of highly trained evaluators must be available.
• Given the wide variety of teacher roles and the many factors that influence learning that are outside the control of the teacher, a wide variety of measures of teacher effectiveness is also indicated. By diversifying, the weakness of any single measure is offset by the strengths of another.
• High-quality research on existing evaluative programs and tools should inform the design of teacher evaluation systems. States and districts should investigate balanced models such as PAR and the Danielson Framework, closely examine the evidence concerning strengths and weaknesses of each model, and never attach high-stakes consequences to teachers which the evidence cannot validly support.
Current public narratives about people in poverty and people of color remain trapped within deficit views of both, assumptions fueled by racist and classist beliefs and policies that remain robust among a people who claim to be committed to equity.
The evidence is overwhelming that society and our key institutions, such as public schools, are failing in their pursuit of equity.
And our education policy—the education reform agenda begun under Ronald Reagan, federalized under George W. Bush, and perpetuated by Barack Obama—is “missing the target” as well as refusing to recognize the problems or the abundant evidence available to address the lingering burden of inequity in the lives and education of America’s children—notably our children of color, and our children born into poverty not of their making.
These failures are bi-partisan, and both major political parties seem deaf to the need to provide for all children the educations they experienced and the educations that they provide their own children. In E Pluribus…Separation, the authors argue:
Though segregation is powerfully related to many dimensions of unequal education, neither political party has discussed it in the current presidential race….
E Pluribus… Separation suggests a number of ways to reverse the trends toward deepening resegregation without implementing mandatory busing. These recommendations include: giving priority in competing for funds to pro-integration policies; changing the operation of choice plans and charter policies so that they foster rather than undermine integration; supporting diverse communities facing resegregation with housing and education policies; helping communities undergoing racial change to create voluntary desegregation plans, and training for administrators and teachers’ to achieve successful and lasting integration.
Systemic problems require system solutions.
In 2012, fifty years after Ellison’s perceptive and brave speech, we are faced with only systemic political failure, and as a result, our children of color are failing and dropping out.
Today, we should heed Ellison’s caution: “As we approach the dropouts, let us identify who we are and where we are.”
Drop-out rates, social and education segregation, and achievement gaps are mirrors not to be ignored—not evidence of failing children, but evidence we are failing them.