Black Brains Matter: Why Are Graduation Rates So Low?

The latest report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education shows that 40 percent of African American males drop out of high school.

(Photo: Don Bayley/Getty Images)

Feb 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

If education is an escalator to lift people from poverty, young African American males are languishing at the bottom level. Only about 60 percent of them will earn high school diplomas, and roughly four in 10 drop out before graduation day. That’s compared with a 65-percent graduation rate for Latino males and 80 percent for young white men.

Meanwhile, the graduation gap between young black men and their white peers has grown even wider, jumping about 10 percent in a little over a year.

Those are just some of the sobering takeaways from the 10th biannual Schott Foundation report on the state of African American males in public education. The report’s authors examined national data on high school completion rates during the 2012–2013 academic year. They found that although the overall graduation rate for black males has grown to 59 percent—up from 51 percent in the previous 2010–2011 survey—they are least likely of all demographic groups to graduate from high school in 35 of 47 states and the District of Columbia.

“Simply stated, while most will say black lives matter and are important, the four-year graduation results in this report indicate that most states and localities operate at best, and have created at worse, climates that often don’t foster healthy living and learning environments for black males,” wrote John H. Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, in the report.

Pedro Noguera—a sociologist, an education analyst, and a professor at New York University—said the study wasn’t a surprise. National education leaders still haven’t addressed the “systemic” problems that lead to the stubborn achievement gap between black and white students.

“These are just graduation rates. We aren’t even talking about college readiness rates,” said Noguera, who is an expert on racial disparities in public education. “What this data suggests is that putting more pressure on students [through high-stakes reforms] is not all that effective.”

The overwhelming focus on education-reform initiatives such as Common Core, No Child Left Behind, and standardized testing, he said, has obscured nationwide issues like underperforming schools and resource disparities between rich and poor schools—problems reflected in the low graduation rates.

Yet at a time when roughly half of all well-paying jobs require some post–secondary school education or technical training, a 60-percent graduation rate for black males effectively condemns 40 percent of their peers to poverty.

“We know the consequences of not finishing high school,” Noguera said. “It’s low-wage jobs or worse. We’re losing a significant number of kids.”

The study showed that Nevada was the worst-performing state for African American males in public school—the graduation rate there is 44 percent. But it’s only one of nine states with black male graduation rates of 55 percent or lower. That list includes Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

At the other end of the spectrum: Of the six states with black male graduation rates of 75 percent or higher, including Maine, Idaho, Arizona, and South Dakota, only two—New Jersey and Tennessee—have black populations larger than 5 percent.

But the low graduation rate for young black men is the tip of the iceberg. The graduation gap begins in elementary school, Noguera said.

“You can’t just [examine what’s happening] at the high school level. You have to look at the whole system,” he said, especially considering that as many as half of all black male ninth graders will drop out before their senior year in high school. Noguera added, “It’s a whole lot easier to teach them to read at age seven than it is at 14.”

However, there was some good news in the report, Noguera pointed out. The uptick in the year-to-year overall graduation rate “was not as much as we would have liked and not as fast, but at least we’re heading in the right direction.” At the same time, school systems like that of Montgomery County, Maryland, are doing some things right, he said, including providing quality after-school programs, tailored educational counseling, and advanced-placement courses for black males.

School systems in states with the highest rates can be models for the rest, Noguera said. “We have to look closely at what’s happening where they are” and use their success to address funding and resource disparities.

As uncomfortable as it may be, he added, there has to be a national-level discussion about school and resource segregation, a problem that has largely been ignored.

“The fact that there was improvement shows it can be done,” he said. Still, “if you never talk about it, it certainly won’t happen.”