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Young Black Males and the Urgency of Now

October 24, 2012

(John H. Jackson is president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, a grantmaking public charity that works to develop and strengthen a broad-based movement to achieve fully resourced quality public education. Before joining Schott, Jackson served as the NAACP's chief policy officer and national director of education and, during the Clinton administration, as senior policy advisor in the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.)

John_jackson_headshotIn April 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King reminded the country that "We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now....Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity....Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, 'Too late'." Forty-five years later, after reviewing the data on graduation rates for black and Latino males and in the spirit of Dr. King’s warning, the Schott Foundation for Public Education titled the 2012 edition of its biennial fifty-state report on public education and black males The Urgency of Now.

The report indicates that nationally 52 percent of black males, 58 percent of Latino males, and 78 percent of white males graduate from high school in four years. To place this data in context, it is predicted that nearly two-thirds of all new jobs will require some college education -- yet just over half of black male students complete high school. And the graduation gap has closed only three percentage points in the last decade. At the current rate of progress, it would take nearly fifty years for black males in the United States to graduate at the same rate as their white male peers.

For decades, community leaders and policy makers have celebrated the victories of those who beat the odds while too often ignoring the fact that the odds are still overwhelmingly stacked against nearly half our nation's black males. The data in the report are not chance facts of life; they are the results, if we are totally honest, of the willful neglect of decision-makers at all levels, from governors to legislators, from mayors to boards of education.

Let me be clear. I am highlighting these sobering statistics not merely to be critical of past actions, but to draw attention to the fact that much more in the way of providing systemic supports for young black males needs to be done.

The Schott Foundation firmly believes that all students can achieve when given a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. And philanthropy can help change the trajectory for students whom the system is failing. While it should not, and does not have the capacity to, replace local, state, and federal agencies in providing every student with equal access to educational opportunity, philanthropy can and must play a leading role in investing resources in advocacy; in ensuring that public resources are appropriately leveraged and equitably distributed; and in helping to sustain grassroots organizations working to forge a public and political consensus around giving every child an opportunity to learn.

Perhaps uniquely, foundations, especially regional foundations, can convene grassroots organizers, elected officials, educators, administrators, and community members to spotlight educational disparities in their states and communities. They can support the research needed to persuade state legislatures to equalize funding across districts. And they can act to buttress the public resolve needed to end discriminatory practices in schools, in the criminal justice system, and in our tax code.

It is time for a supports-centered reform agenda focused on providing every student with equal access to the resources they need to succeed, including high-quality extended learning time, early education, and challenging personalized educational plans for every child that is performing a year or more below grade level. We also must do more to recruit and retain effective teachers, particularly in high-need classrooms; implement college and career preparatory curricula in underresourced schools; and end "push out" tactics such as the routine and discriminatory use of out-of-school suspensions, as well as the practice of "locking out" black students from selective high schools and gifted and talented and Advanced Placement programs.

The Urgency of Now calls for the adoption of "game-changer" narratives and policy proposals. Setting standards and supporting existing programs are not game-changers. For our children and nation to win the education race, all students must be able to compete on a level playing field, with access to the resources and student-centered learning approaches they need to succeed, regardless of their starting point. Philanthropy can and must do more to make that a reality. And its commitment to the issue must be sustained. As Shawn Dove, director of the Open Society Foundation's Campaign for Black Male Achievement says, "Philanthropy can't seek to solve generational problems within one grant cycle." Foundations must provide unrestricted grants that enable the organizational capacity building needed to sustain advocacy work until the problem is fixed. And we need more systems-focused work -- work like the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Grade Level Reading Campaign, the Ford Foundation's Time to Succeed Coalition, and the Lumina Foundation's Goal 2025 Campaign.

We all know that the way out of poverty runs through the schoolhouse door, but today for too many black students those doors only serve as a barrier. Here at the Schott Foundation, it is our hope that philanthropy, the media, policy makers, and advocates will not only take notice of the alarming data in The Urgency of Now, but will seek to integrate the proposals offered in the report to provide every student with the critical resources they need to succeed in school and in life. Before it's too late.

-- John Jackson

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