Published may. 02, 2012

Education is hailed as the greatest equalizer in American society. The fact is for entire generations of Americans, access to good and meaningful educational opportunities has historically been a ticket to well-paying jobs, greater participation in civic life, strong families and communities, and for all of us a stronger and more prosperous United States of America. Yet for a large portion of African-Americans (males in particular), the promise of education as a way out of poverty into a productive life of work and active civic participation remains largely unfulfilled.

The statistics are just startling. A publication entitled Yes We Can: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males reveals that just 15 states in this country achieve high school graduation rates higher than 60 percent for black males. That’s right, 15! Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, West Virginia, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Utah.

The remaining 35 “States of Emergency,” as the report calls them, include Illinois, Florida, Texas, California, New York, and Pennsylvania—states with some of the highest numbers of African-American residents in the nation. And even more worrisome is that in a cluster of eight states in the U.S. Southeast, high school graduation rates for black males are below 50 percent. This stark reality highlights what is pretty much a consensus amongst researchers: Black males in America today are left out of the distribution of educational opportunities and, if nothing is done to reverse this trend, they will continue to languish at the bottom of the economic ladder. Why we as a society continue to tolerate and perpetuate such a letdown is simply incomprehensible.

If we are serious about resolving this issue once and for all, then it’s time to put into action certain basic principles—and right away. First and foremost, let’s admit that we have a problem by accepting collective responsibility for the continuing failure of our schools to educate young black males. Second, let’s stop the bleeding (current graduation rates for black males are unacceptable). And third, let’s incentivize innovation and scale the kinds of educational practices that have been proven to work. The way we do this, in my mind, includes a combination of strategies that would work for both students who are in school as well as those who have left.

There are pockets of excellence in many different states around the country with schools where young black males actually graduate high school and go on to college at exceptionally higher rates. Let’s continue to learn about what these schools are doing right and replicate it because rather than the exception, they ought to be the norm. Unfortunately, at this stage we seem to be lacking resolve to right this wrong that has existed way too long.

For schools serving students who are off-track to graduation or entirely out-of-school, JFF’s Back on Track Through College model provides a blueprint for reengagement and continued support beyond attainment of a high school diploma or GED through completion of a postsecondary credential with value in the labor market.

What schools or programs have you seen work? Share them on Twitter @JFFtweets.