A report released today shows the grim reality of America's young black males and their educational attainment, and it calls for a White House summit to draw attention to the crisis and start finding solutions.
Just 12 percent of black male 4th graders nationally and 11 percent of those living in large central cities performed at or above proficient levels in reading on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), compared with 38 percent of white males in that grade nationwide, according to the report from the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's urban school districts.
Among 8th graders, only 12 percent of black males across the country and 10 percent living in large cities performed at or above proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white males in that grade nationwide.
This slice of NAEP data shows just how stark the differences are: Urban black males without learning disabilities had reading and mathematics scores, on average, that were lower than white males nationwide with identified learning disabilities.
The NAEP performance data, however, just shows one part of the grim picture. The council's report digs into some of the factors that contribute to the lack of success this group of students shows, including higher infant mortality rates, more limited health care access, and a lower rate of participation in early-childhood education programs.
School-age black males are also more likely to be suspended, be held back a grade, and drop out of school than their white peers.
"At almost every juncture, the odds are stacked against these young men in ways that result in too much unfulfilled potential and too many fractured lives," writes Michael Casserly, the council's executive director.
The council's report suggests that the underperformance of black male youths is nothing short of a national emergency, and it calls for the convening of a White House conference.
"The previous efforts to ring the alarm bell have too often fallen on deaf ears, and we thought that a White House conference would help both raise the visibility of the issues and aide in attempting to martial the public will to tackle it," Casserly said in an interview.
"This is not just an education issue, and it is not just an urban issue. It is a broader national issue that is going to require sustained and coordinated effort on the part of a lot of people, and we don't expect the White house to solve this and other issues."
The link between the lack of education attainment and economic status is clear: The unemployment rate for black males over 20 in the second quarter of this year—17.3 percent—was more than twice the rate for their white male peers (8.6 percent).
There are a few bright spots when black male achievement is discussed, but one emerging story of good news is in Baltimore. I went to the Charm City two weeks ago for a story on the successful efforts there to increase graduation rates and reduce dropout rates among black males.
The district has had a unifying rallying cry from its leader, Andrés A. Alonso: Hold on to the kids.
"In many school systems, kids can leave and drop out, and it's treated as a nonevent," Alonso told me. "I want everybody to feel an electric charge when a kid fails to show up."
For a few glimmers of hope, the last chapter of the report contains "profiles of excellence," short stories of young black men from urban high schools who were successful in college.