The Scandal of K-12 Education

header-hoover-institution-fellows1-1by Juan Williams

Another school year over, another lost opportunity for millions of students. Minorities suffer the most.

BN-OS077_juanwi_M_20160629123830As America’s K-12 students enjoy the first weeks of summer vacation, there is good news about minority education in the U.S. The percentage of black and Hispanic high-school graduates heading off to college is going up. And black and Hispanic dropout rates are going down. According to the research organization Child Trends, between 1972 and 2014 the Hispanic dropout rate fell to 11% from 34%; the black dropout rate decreased to 7% from 21%.

But these encouraging statistics mask some uglier truths about the state of minority education. While 40% of white Americans age 25-29 held bachelor’s degrees in 2013, that distinction belonged to only 15% of Hispanics, and 20% of blacks. Another discouraging sign: The Atlantic magazine recently reported that the share of black undergraduates at top-ranked universities has stagnated at about 6% for the past 20 years. More minority students are graduating from high school, but they are often going off to community colleges, most commonly two-year schools, and not earning a four-year degree.

The root of this problem: Millions of black and Hispanic students in U.S. schools simply aren’t taught to read well enough to flourish academically. For them, the end of the school year marks another lost opportunity, another step toward a life of blunted potential.

For example, according to a March report by Child Trends, based on 2015 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 21% of Hispanic fourth-grade students were deemed “proficient” in reading. This is bad news. A fourth-grader’s reading level is a key indicator of whether he or she will graduate from high school.
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The situation is worse for African-Americans: A mere 18% were considered “proficient” in reading by fourth grade. An analysis of the NAEP data by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation reports: “It’s 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.”

The problem isn’t limited to minority students. Only 46% of white fourth-graders—and 35% of fourth-graders of all races—were judged “proficient” in reading in 2015. In general, American students are outperformed by students abroad. According to the most recent Program for International Student Assessment, a series of math, science and reading tests given to 15-year-olds around the world, the U.S. placed 17th among the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in reading.

In other words, in addition to America’s unsettling racial achievement gaps in education—white fourth-graders outperform Hispanic and black fourth-graders in every state that has appropriate data—there are far too many white students not performing at grade level.

Also buried in these troubling numbers are the big differences in reading among minorities from state to state: In Alabama, Hispanic fourth-graders are reading more than two grade levels below Hispanic fourth-graders in Florida.

The difference in reading levels between minority students in different states offers an important clue about why minority reading levels are lagging. Generally, states with the highest proportion of low-income minority students do the worst, according to Child Trends. And there is no question about the difference in poverty rates among children of different races. Poverty rates among black (37.1%) and Hispanic children (31.9%) are nearly three times the rate for white children (12.3%).

Another factor affecting poor performance among minority students is persistent segregation.

According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, between 2000 and 2014 “the percentage of all K-12 public schools that had high percentages of poor and Black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent,” noting that “75 to 100% of the students were Black or Hispanic and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—a commonly used indicator of poverty.” The GAO report added: “These schools offered disproportionately fewer math, science, and college preparatory courses and had disproportionately higher rates of students who were held back in ninth grade, suspended, or expelled.”

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the December 2015 law that replaced No Child Left Behind, individual states, not the federal government, decide how to hold accountable schools with a disproportionate number of failing students. For black and Hispanic students falling behind at an early age, their best hope is for every state, no matter its minority-student poverty rate, to take full responsibility for all students who aren’t making the grade—and get those students help now.

That means adopting an attitude of urgency when it comes to saving a child’s education. Specifically, it requires cities and states to push past any union rules that protect underperforming schools and bad teachers. Urgency also means increasing options for parents, from magnet to charter schools. Embracing competition among schools is essential to heading off complacency based on a few positive signs. American K-12 education is in trouble, especially for minority children, and its continuing neglect is a scandal.

Mr. Williams, a political analyst for Fox News and columnist for the Hill, is the author of “We the People: The Modern-Day Figures Who Have Reshaped and Affirmed the Founding Fathers’ Vision of America” (Crown, 2016).

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