Education: Our Failure, Our Fight

June 15, 2011

America’s legacy of racism is alive and well. The evidence is apparent in the racial disparities in education, income, wealth, health, and incarceration. Let’s review some facts about the current state of the educational system – the most fundamental resource for upward mobility – and how it is churning out a class of poor, unhealthy, underachieving minority youth.

If only 51% of white students were graduating from high school in four years, I imagine that most people would consider this a national crisis. I can see the President delivering a passionate prime-time speech about our responsibility to our youth. I imagine the Democrats and Republicans would be arguing, not about personal responsibility versus government intervention, but about who has the best government program to fix the problem and how fast we can implement it. 

In reality, this is not true for white students, but is true for African-American students, according to many resources including the Alliance for Excellent Education. In 2009, only 51% of African-American students and 55% of Hispanic/Latino students graduated high school with their peers, compared to 76% of white students. The situation is even worse for African-American males, with only 47% of them graduating in 2010 (source: Schott 50 State Report). 

The problems of the United States’ educational system are not just hurting minority youth, but are preventing all youth from competing internationally. According to the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” of 2009 and the OECD report of 2003, U.S. eighth grade students rank 9th, and 15 year-olds rank 28th in math and science among other developed countries.

This crisis in education impacts many areas of our society and leads to poor health and outcomes on many levels. Let’s connect the dots: Little educational attainment leads to lower paying jobs and job instability, which, generally speaking, leads to living in or near poverty. In the U.S., low income is associated with a host of negative outcomes such as obesity, incarceration, low birth weight, high school drop out, and living in neighbors of high crime and little resources. Thus, the fight for the equal access to quality education is critical if America is to truly be the beacon for justice and opportunity in the world. 

To be clear, the importance of personal responsibility is not lost in this argument. But now that the cycle of poverty and lack of education is in high gear, and uneducated parents are raising under-educated children, simply saying “Do better!” will not solve this problem. We have to inject resources into the cycle to help people “do better,” or else they are bound to repeat the cycle.

Excelling in spite of the conditions around you is exceptional, not customary. So with these gross failures of the educational system and society as a whole, what can we expect from almost half of minority youth? What types of lives do we expect them to lead in this technological age? More importantly, what are we doing to stem the tide of failure and disparity?

Quality public education is the civil rights issue of our generation – the next frontier in the battle for “justice for all.” We can’t allow the accomplishments of the civil rights era pacify us into apathy.

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