Young Black males are the canaries in our schools

Their struggles signal an entire educational system in trouble

by Sondra Samuels

“Nothing should be overlooked in fighting for better education. Be persistent and ornery: this will be good for the lethargic educational establishment and will aid the whole cause of public education.”
— Roy Wilkins, civil rights leader

Sometimes, when it comes to public education, I feel like an obsessed maniac who needs to get a life! I mean really, how many times can I shout, “There is a crisis in public education, ya’ll!”

As Black folks, we have a moral obligation to get adroit at strategically pushing for change with “the fierce urgency of now.” Our children’s lives and livelihoods are at stake, especially our boys.

According to a recent 50-state report conducted by the Schott Foundation on public education and Black males, only 47 percent of our sons graduate from high school. In Minnesota, the rate is 59 percent (while 88 percent of White males graduate).

Additionally, in the U.S. only 12 percent of our fourth-grade boys are at grade level in reading, and only 12 percent are at grade level by the eighth grade in math. In fact, if we liken what happens in a coal mine to what is happening in U.S. education today, our sons are the canaries in the system.

Early coal mines had no ventilation systems and often contained gases that could not be detected by the men who worked underground. So, when there was a buildup of life-destroying gases, many miners were unnecessarily killed.

To combat the danger, birds were used as a detection device. Canaries were most often used, because they were the most sensitive to carbon monoxide and methane, two gases found in mines that become lethal when there is a buildup.

Miners would bring a canary in a cage with them into the mines. As long as the canary continued singing, the miners knew their air supply was safe. When a canary was found dead, miners knew to evacuate immediately.

And so it is with our educational system. We know that there has been a proverbial buildup of gases that has proven lethal for the over 1.2 million students that drop out of America’s schools each year.

For the students that don’t drop out, there are gases that make them significantly less competitive than students from other countries.

These students may not be dying, but they are not well. According to the latest findings, not only are other countries “out-teaching” the U.S., but even our more affluent White students — the ones we often think are doing well — are not performing well by international standards.

Two recent studies highlight our lack of overall competitiveness. The first is the results of the well-regarded Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a benchmark measure of student achievement given every three years to 15-year-olds around the world. It doesn’t just measure rote learning, but also tests imagination, creativity, and the ability to think outside the box.

Asia dominated all six of the top spots. Students in Shanghai, a province in China where students took the test for the first time, were the top performers in the world. And among the 34 top developed countries, America ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. These ranking are alarming if you heed the prophetic words that President Obama spoke before Congress: “Countries that out teach us today will out compete us tomorrow.”

For too long, many have believed that the gas in the mine causing America’s poor performance relative to other countries is the “diversity” in our country.

It has been thought that if not for immigrants, minorities and low-income students, the U.S. students would be more competitive.

According to a report featured in The Atlantic magazine this month, White, high-performing kids — those thought to be impervious to the mitigating forces to getting a great education — do not compete favorably with average students in other developed countries. The findings state, for example, that on a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high performers among White kids than Poland has among kids overall, and that in Illinois the percentage of kids with a college-educated parent who is highly skilled at math is lower than the percentage of such kids among all students in Iceland, England, Estonia and Sweden.

What do all of these countries have that we don’t? According to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “They have longer school days, better-educated teachers, cultures that value education, and a commitment to put more resources behind the children and communities that need it most.”

There are a number of things you can do to save our sons and, hence, all of America’s children. The first thing is to get involved! Start by committing to attend the Minneapolis School Board meetings (6 pm every Tuesday at 807 Broadway Ave. NE) even if you don’t have a child in a district school.

This is where the conditions of the mine are being set. The canaries will continue to die first unless we act. Attend. Listen. Understand the issues and let your voice be heard.

Together we will rouse a lethargic system. It is possible. It is being done around the country. Why not here?

Sondra Samuels’ “Everything’s Possible” column appears monthly in the MSR. She welcomes reader responses to sondra@citypeace.org.