The Jaw-Dropping Educational Crisis Facing Black Males

The Council of Great City Schools' "A Call for Change" documents the "jaw-dropping" educational crisis facing black males.

So, imagine a major metropolitan area where as few as 80 black males may graduate next year from the urban district's seven neighborhood schools! If such a statistic drops your jaw, please view this map of racial segregation in Oklahoma City. Our metropolitan area has more than 130,000 black residents, with the largest concentration of blacks living east of the railroad tracks. Most blacks live in that highly segregated area, and most of them are served by neighborhood schools in the Oklahoma City Public School System. A tough new graduation law takes effect next year, and the best estimate is that these seven schools have around 179 blacks on track to graduate. It appears that males will graduate at about 80 percent of the rate of females.

The stories behind this tragedy are complicated. Next year, students must pass four End of Instruction (EOI) tests to graduate, and the numbers of students who passed last year's English III tests provide the best estimate of next year's graduation rates. The semi-good news is that more than 1,200 black students in the metro area reached their junior year and took EOIs in 2010. The good news is that the pass rate for black juniors in selective charters, magnet schools, and suburban schools was nearly 80 percent. Given those outstanding pass rates, low-poverty schools do not face as much pressure to narrow the curriculum or resort to non-stop test prep.

Even in our poorest, most segregated neighborhoods, black families have benefited from a wide variety of educational choices. Students can choose from the 18 school systems serving the metro area, not to mention private schools, charters, enterprise schools, specialty schools, and magnets. As the proliferation of choice has "creamed" off the easier-to-educate students, neighborhood schools have been left with more extreme concentrations of generational poverty. The OKCPS has more than 7,500 high school students, with around 5,300 attending seven non-selective schools. More than 85 percent of our neighborhood high school students are non-white, and nearly 45 percent are black. Their low-income rates average 92 percent.

In 2007, about 2,250 freshmen entered high school. Three years later, only about 331 black students remained in neighborhood schools in order to take their junior year EOIs, and less than 55 percent of them passed their English III test.

Simple explanations of this disaster do not hold water. The problem is not an excessive suspension rate. The district's largest alternative school is near my old neighborhood school, and they out-performed us on three-fourths of EOIs. The problem is the lack of services offered to students who act out their pain by disrupting class. Our underfunded neighborhood schools have become "the alternative schools to the alternative schools."

The problem is not segregation. The all-black school system across the street from my students' neighborhood has a English III pass rate of 70 percent.

Our two more successful neighborhood schools, that are on track to graduate 50 percent more blacks than the other five, do not have better teachers or parents, but they hint at some solutions. One is 88 percent black and 91 percent low-income, but because of its geographical location, it has not suffered from the most extreme creaming of its student-leaders to lower-poverty schools. The other, with a low-income rate of 90 percent, is our only "no-majority" high school. Its students come from an elementary feeder group with a nice balance of black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and American-Indian students. Perhaps that is why the district's A plus Arts Education programs are disproportionately located in that area.

If -- or when -- the worst-case scenario occurs next year, we should remember that the problem was not a simple legacy of Jim Crow, but the result of intense concentrations of generational poverty. Choice has undoubtedly helped many poor children of color, and it is possible that the test-driven accountability of NCLB has done some good, somewhere. "Reform" has done extreme harm, however, to our most vulnerable students left behind in the test-prep factories known as neighborhood schools.