By Honorable Peter C. Groff
For good reasons many African Americans have wonderful memories of their time in public schools. Among those recollections are the family and community legacies, the favorite teacher and the lifelong friends that were made. Even for those, particularly in the south in the 1950’s and 1960’s, who have mixed feelings about their public school experiences they also remember the solid foundation that public education provided for college and a career. The system, even with its flaws, was good enough for our parents and, in some cases, for us.
However, that nostalgic era must come to an end and African Americans need to remake public education for our kids.
Too many of our kids have fallen through the cracks of the one size fits all public education system that was created in the 19th Century. According to the U.S. Department of Education, an academic achievement gap exists has been created and is widening. Nationally, on average, African American twelfth graders read at the same level as white eighth graders, and barely more than half of African Americans graduate from high school. These numbers and other statistics like them are stunning, but when you realize that the majority of people incarcerated in the U.S. are people of color who have low educational attainment, and every person who drops out of school costs society about $260,000 in earnings, taxes and productivity, the numbers are frightening.
If our kids are going to be competitive in the burgeoning global economy we must prepare them better. President Barack Obama outlined the challenge in February of 2009 during his first address to Congress.
“In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a pre-requisite.
Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education…and half of the students who begin college never finish.”
So how do we create a better way forward for our kids? How do we create high quality options and opportunities for all students?
1. Far too often our children enter kindergarten unprepared to learn; thus, they are more likely to fall even further behind in the critical first four years of kindergarten and elementary school. Responsively, our community must demand high quality preschool programs for every four and five year old child, especially our poorest kids, and guarantee access to affordable, quality and safe child care.
2. Once our kids are properly prepared for K-12 education we need to ensure their learning does not stagnate or falter. We must require that our legislators and school districts give our parents high quality choice within the public school system. Innovative options like charter and online schools, homeschooling and even high performing traditional schools recognize the overwhelming body of research that shows not all children learn the same and that a one size fits all system is destined to leave countless students behind. Policymakers must deliver the K-12 choice, innovation and quality that numerous national polls show that parents are demanding, especially African American parents.
3. Finally, the President often reminds us that “…three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma”, but African American students are 45% more likely to take remedial class if they attend college, and then less than 40% graduate often because of economic pressures. The community must demand that school districts better prepare African American students for college and that legislators increase Pell grants, help families manage loan debt, slow tuition costs, and undergird community colleges. In addition, the community should clamor for high quality vocational training programs and meaningful apprenticeship opportunities for those students who elect not to attend college.
The schools of today have a unique challenge to prepare all students to compete on the world stage where critical and cutting edge thinking and knowledge are a must. For our kids’ sake and for the nation’s future we need to shake our nostalgic attachment to the schools of our past and demand something new. We must demand choice, innovation and quality in all our schools and for all our students.
Hon. Peter C. Groff is the former President of the Colorado Senate and a Senior Education appointee of President Barack Obama. Groff is a noted policy and political strategist and the Principal of MCG2 Consulting. Follow him on Twitter @petercgroff