It’s not about the failings of public education, it’s about how we fail to show up for Black and brown children.
Part I: What’s Failing?
Public education is the first, largest, and most influential public system most American citizens will encounter in their life. This school year, 91% of America’s school-age children are enrolled in a public school, and half of them are children of color. Most students in America — over 3 million — will graduate from a traditional public school, and 69% of them will enroll in a two or four-year college. Even the most selective colleges and universities will receive a freshman class that is majority graduates of public schools.
We spend a lot of time lamenting how public schools are “failing” Black and brown children, but the truth is all Black and brown children are not failing in schools. The national average of Black students graduating high school with their cohort is 76%. Among certain states the graduation rate is as high as the national average (84%) (note: there is NO racial or ethnic group- including white people- that graduates 100% of its high school students with their cohort). Nationally, Black youth make up 15% of the population and 15% of college enrollment. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) regularly graduate Black students at a rate higher than other institutions. And Black women are now considered the most educated group in the country. In the last 15 years the college going rate among Latino students has increased by 15% while the undergraduate enrollment rate has doubled to 3 million students. It isn’t all doomsday for Black students and students of color, but it is certainly complicated.
While the public education system seems to successfully serve a majority of students across demographic backgrounds, there’s no question that its failings are disproportionately felt by Black, brown and low-income students. 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education (1955), the “achievement gap” between Black and white students has barely narrowed and Black and Hispanic students are less likely to have a high school diploma than their white counterparts. On average, Black, Latino and poor students attend majority poor schools with less experienced teachers and a less rigorous curriculum. Across the nation Black and Latino students are more likely to be suspended or subject to harsher discipline practices than their white peers for the same infractions. In New Orleans, even, the Black children who are 68% of the city’s youth population are 96% of students arrested at schools. Contrary to popular belief, there are not more Black males in prison than in college. But if the root causes of the school-to-prison pipeline are not addressed at some point this myth can become reality.
So what do we do when we witness public education systems preparing millions of American children for higher education, training and social mobility while also producing disproportionately unacceptable outcomes for Black and brown children?