Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Rod Paige: Race gap in education must be closed

I disagree (with research backing) that the band-aid solution to expand charters and virtual schooling are the solution to ending historical educational inequities. There may be isolated cases of success (i.e., exceptions) but they are not the rule.


By ROD PAIGE | Houston Chronicle (Ed-Op)
May 30, 2009

Before now, I’ve not thought much of “first African-American” designations, but President Obama’s nomination of African-American astronaut Charles F. Bolden to become the next NASA administrator thrilled me.

The most notable first, of course, was the first African-American to become president of the United States, Barack Obama. But even as incalculable as his “first” was, it was one more exceptional achievement among many. For example, it was recently announced that Alysa Stanton will soon become the first African-American female to be ordained as a rabbi. And in Congress, Charles Rangel is the first African-American to chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee and Bennie Thompson is the first African-American to head the Homeland Security Committee. The list goes on.

African-Americans now excel in business, medicine, sports, the arts, the military and in almost any field you can name. This represents incredible progress for a people who were in slavery longer than they have been out of slavery. But just as important, for a nation once encumbered by overt and, in some cases, state-supported racial discrimination and social injustice, it also represents undeniable progress toward the realization of the ideals so boldly expressed in our Declaration of Independence.

But there is a catch. With few exceptions, the road to opportunity and success is a toll road. It is open only to those who possess the required preparation for the trip. A key element of that preparation is education. Charles Bolden’s achievements are the direct result of the bachelor of science degree in electrical science he received from the United States Naval Academy, the master of science degree in systems management he received at the University of Southern California and the training he received in the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md.

Almost without exception, high achievers used education to propel themselves to their positions of distinction. Malcolm X called education the passport to freedom. History tells us that it is most certainly the passport to opportunity. The acquisition of this passport by our growing minority population must now become our major civil rights focus. In pursuit of our historical goal of equal opportunity it is time to realize that there is no opportunity, much less equal opportunity, for those who cannot read, cannot count and cannot reason. There is only a bleak future for those who have no grasp of history and little understanding of government, geography and the humanities. Unfortunately, that is the sad definition of too many minority children.

Closing the educational achievement gap between minority and white children is the civil rights issue of our time. Now that the road to opportunity and success in America is open, our job must become helping more people equip themselves with passports. This doesn’t mean that racial discrimination and social injustice are dead and neatly tucked away in the Smithsonian. It just means that where racial discrimination and social injustice were once systemic and possessed great potency, they are now episodic and much less of a barrier to success.

Today, the major barrier retarding advancement is the fact that only a small percentage of minority children are attaining the educational foundation necessary to take advantage of an open road to opportunity and success. Today, only about a third of African-American school kids read and do math at proficiency levels. The typical minority 17-year-old reads and does math at about the same level as the typical white 13-year-old. Nationally, the achievement gap between underserved minority school children and their white counterparts is about 25 points on the Nation’s Report Card. The dropout rate for African-American and Latino school children is shockingly high, and the graduation rate is astoundingly low. This must change.

In order for schools to assure that our children have the best learning experience, they must have help from all of us. Political leaders must be open to support a broader array of instructional modalities including charter schools, private schools, parochial schools and virtual learning systems. They must resist the urging of the guardians of the status quo. Parents must help children understand the power of education to improve life’s circumstances and encourage them to do their best in school. Community leaders must mount after-school and Saturday morning programs and other initiatives that help children catch up on skills they have missed. Churches must expand their education programs and create better coordination with schools. Organizations like the NAACP, LULAC, the Urban League and others must work more forcefully with social organizations on educational initiatives. In other words, closing the education achievement gap will require a total community effort.

Admittedly, the task of closing the gap is huge, but the potential reward is enormous. The great leaders of our past have opened the road to opportunity for underserved children, but that road is still closed to those who are educationally unprepared for the trip. By working to close the achievement gap we move closer to the day when a “first” for minority achievement is no longer news.

Paige is a former secretary of education in the Bush administration and former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District.

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