More than four hundred years ago, English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon coined the oft-repeated phrase, “Knowledge is power.” In many cases, knowledge can, and does, empower people. As citizens arm themselves with information, they are often galvanized into action. But what happens when groups of people suffer from a lack of knowledge, or − even worse − deny the facts?
A recent USA News Poll draws such a dilemma into sharp focus. This poll, assessing attitudes toward public schools among North Carolinians, was taken in August. The question put to survey respondents was simple and to the point: “If you were grading the public schools where you live, and you could give the public schools either a passing grade … or a failing grade … how would you grade the public schools where you live?”
53 percent of those polled gave public schools a passing grade, 38 percent gave public schools failing marks, and 9 percent were unsure how to grade schools. While flagging support for public schools is a cause for concern, even more disturbing were the racial differences the survey revealed.
When scores were disaggregated by race, African-Americans gave public schools the greatest vote of confidence (62 percent), while only 51 percent of white respondents gave schools a passing grade. These findings are counterintuitive − solid evidence consistently reveals that black students are most at-risk in our state’s public schools.
The Schott Foundation for Public Education reports a graduation rate of only 42 percent for black males in North Carolina, a shockingly low number. According to the Education Trust, one out of every four African- American students cannot read at grade level, compared to just one in ten white students. And while the black/white achievement gap is closing, it is doing so at a snail’s pace. The Education Trust reports that between 1998 and 2003, fourth-grade NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scale scores in reading improved for both races, but the gap only closed by one scale score point.
The difference between achievement averages for white and black students is still 29 points. Proficiency data in reading for these same groups of students show a 32 point difference between whites and blacks. Even 2003-04 End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests in North Carolina reveal an achievement gap in proficiency of 25 percentage points between blacks and whites. Clearly, our public schools are continuing to leave many vulnerable African-American students behind.
Persistent achievement gaps between white and black students are a cause for great concern, not complacency. So, what gives? Why do a majority of African-Americans remain largely supportive of schools that fail so many black students? Either there is a great lack of awareness in the African-American community of these achievement gaps, or there is a simple denial that they exist. Whatever the reason, we must direct attention to this gross inequity, using churches, neighborhoods, and civic groups to disseminate accurate information. If the public continues to become knowledgeable regarding the facts, change is sure to follow.
Miss Kikadelis heads the North Carolina Eduation Alliance. To learn about education reform, as well as the latest education news, visit the Alliance online at www.nceducationalliance.org.