The failing promise of public education

Joseph Phillips Contributor
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We, the American public, hold it as an article of faith that those responsible for devising and implementing public policy have our best interests at heart. Our best minds are hard at work, striving to make the world a better place. Our elected officials are dedicated to protecting our freedoms, increasing our prosperity, and securing justice for all.

What, then, is the public to assume when, in spite of the best efforts of our most brilliant thinkers and politicians, freedoms erode, prosperity decreases, and for a great many, justice seems elusive? Surely, sinister forces must be at work.

Let us take for an example the nation’s system of public education. For years, American taxpayers have been sold on a triad of public policy fixes for public education. In order to improve student performance, state and federal governments must dedicate a greater portion of their budgetary dollars to education; class sizes must be reduced, and there must be greater oversight by the federal government. So fervent is the belief in this holy trinity of education, that to even ponder the efficacy of the federal Department of Education is seen as heresy. Any politician who attempts to curb the unrestricted flow of tax dollars to public schools is accused of not wanting to “invest in education.”

And yet, increases in spending have not resulted in a corresponding increase in student achievement. Studies have shown that over the last 50 years, student proficiency in math and English has shown little improvement even as spending and federal government oversight has increased and class size has decreased. Given the brilliance and dedication of our public servants, the failure of significant academic gains to materialize, in spite of billions spent on education, can only be the devil’s work.

And if you are a black man, the devil must, indeed, be working overtime.

Information recently culled from the National Assessment for Educational Progress, based on national math and reading tests given to students in the fourth and eighth grades, revealed some rather disheartening results. According to the New York Times, the report paints a picture for black males that is, “even bleaker than generally known.”

In 2009, math scores for black boys lagged behind those of both Hispanic boys and girls, and black males fell behind white boys by an average of 30 points, which is interpreted as three academic grades. Black males drop out of high school at a rate twice as high as white males and their SAT scores are on average 104 points lower. In short, the report shows that black males fall behind academically early on and never regain ground.

These are not students failing because they do not have access to the internet or don’t have Olympic-sized swimming pools. The sad fact is that the report demonstrates that middle-class black boys are scoring about as well as poor white boys. These are students who are not proficient in the basics of math and English.

The social cost of this failure is not to be underestimated.

Half of these students will drop out of high school; lacking a high school diploma and being functionally illiterate will qualify them for manual labor, which is steadily in the decline. They will join the ranks of the chronically unemployed; many of these men will make a life hustling on the streets and eventually become involved in the criminal justice system. Criminal records will make these men more unemployable, which will make it even more unlikely that they will have the financial means to support the children they father. It is a hellish cycle that will repeat generation after generation.

Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, says, “There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten.” Ferguson gives voice to something that many of us have long suspected: how well children perform in school depends, to a great extent, on the kind of training they receive in the home.

Battling the dark forces aligned against our children may necessitate the asking of some uncomfortable questions. For instance, is the continued academic under-performance of black boys the result of a failure of the educational system? Or, is the issue rooted in black culture?

Of course, we can always avoid the discomfort of those questions and continue to rely on the original thinking of our best and brightest. In response to the chilling figures presented in the report, the authors have come up with the original idea of urging Congress to “appropriate more money for schools.”

Joseph is perhaps best known for the role of Lt. Martin Kendall, Lisa Bonet’s husband, on the hit series The Cosby Show. He was also a three time NAACP Image Award Nominee for his portrayal of Attorney Justus Ward on the Daytime Drama General Hospital. For two seasons he appeared as Mayor Morgan Douglas on the CBS series The District, recurred as Marcus Johnson on the hit CBS series Without A Trace and most recently appeared as JT Morse on the Fox Series, Vanished. Mr. Phillips also a syndicated columnist. His column “The Way I see It” appears weekly in more than 30 publications across the country.