By DeWayne Wickham
As I read the Council of the Great City Schools report on the problems of black males in urban schools, my mind raced back to a day in the fall of 2006 when I took my then-13-year-old daughter to her piano lesson.
Arriving early, we stopped at a Friendly’s restaurant to get ice cream. When the young black male who waited on us said the cones cost $3.32, I handed him a $5 bill. But as he tried to input this payment, his cash register malfunctioned and wouldn’t tell him the correct change.
The young man’s eyes glistened as he mumbled barely audible sounds of his struggle to manually compute the difference. Then, as customers in line behind us began to voice their frustration, my daughter threw him a lifeline. “You owe us $1.68,” she said softly.
Outside the store she asked quizzically: “What school does he go to? He’s a lot older than I am, and he couldn’t figure that out.” He could have gone to just about any school.
“Black males continue to perform lower than their peers throughout the country on almost every indicator,” the Washington-based Council of the Great Schools, which represents the nation’s 66 largest urban public school systems, said in a recent report.
While much of the news coverage of the council’s gut-wrenching report has focused on the failure of nearly all fourth- and eighth-grade black males to read and do math at proficiency levels, less attention has been paid to its conclusion that educational improvements alone won’t fix this problem. What’s needed, the council said, is a “concerted national effort to improve the education, social and employment outcomes of African-American males.”
If you think that’s just a warmed-over pitch for more funding of a liberal agenda, you’re being shortsighted. In 13 years, minorities will be a majority of this nation’s children younger than 18. In just 29 years, most working-age Americans will be black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American. This nation will be hard-pressed to remain the world’s leading economy if a sizeable — and growing — share of its potential workforce is slipping through the gaping holes in our education system.
“It has not become apparent to America yet that we are all in this boat together. In the past it was easier for people to think if something happened in that part of the boat occupied by blacks, it wouldn’t impact the whole ship,” Nat Irvin, a futurist at the University of Louisville, said of the council’s report.
“If people think the nation can continue to do well economically in about 30 years when minorities become the largest population group,” and nothing is done to address the black male education problem, “they’re kidding themselves,” he said.
A comprehensive plan is needed — one that recognizes the connection between the social and economic environment from which these underachieving students come and the educational setting into which they are sent.
The council wants a White House conference to address this crisis. People need to recognize this is a problem that can’t be solved with generalized education reform. It demands a targeted effort to help black males.
If the nation continues this neglect, underachieving black males will produce enough dead weight to sink the American ship of state.