Back in 2002, President George W. Bush, with much pomp and circumstance, enacted the ambitious and controversial No Child Left Behind education law, which established a series of standards that schools and states must meet or face severe penalties.
Its ultimate goal was to narrow the educational divide between African American and White students by 2014 — a noble idea that the nation is not having an easy time of achieving. Like a lot of political ideas with lofty expectations, the rhetoric doesn't always translate into effective laws, and there is rarely complete consensus on success rates. Many times, it depends on how the statistics are spun.
"There are good results of No Child Left Behind across the nation," declared Bush at a North Carolina school last month, giving assurances that "the gap is closing," The New York Times reported. At the other side of the spectrum, Michael T. Nettles, a senior vice president at the Educational Testing Service, recently informed an audience at Columbia University that the divide is actually "showing very few signs of closing," according to the Times story.
This by no means implies that Black children have not made progress. According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the nation's report card that gauges student achievement, they have, but incrementally — just not enough to keep pace with their White counterparts, who are hardly breaking achievement records by any stretch of the imagination.
The difference in percentage of White and African American students performing at an adequate level in both reading and math appears to be expanding, not closing — despite efforts to the contrary at the local, state and federal levels over the past 15 years.
From 1992 to 2005, the percentage of African American fourth-graders who read at or above proficiency grew from 8 to 12 percent, according to the report card. Over the same period, the percentage of White students reading at the same level increased from 35 percent to 41 percent. Yet, as average achievement scores improved, the chasm between adept White and Black readers widened by 1 percentage point — from 27 to 28 over the 1992-2005 period.
Where Black children have shown strong progress is on the mathematics front, an encouraging trend given the importance of technology in our nation's current and future economy. From 1990 to 2005, the percentage of African American fourth-graders scoring at or above proficiency soared from 1 percent to 13 percent. But, once again, the gap between White and Black fourth-graders with adequate math skills grew by 4 percentage points — from 20 to 24 percentage points.
This is not to say that Bush is completely wrong in his assessment. It's all in the way the statistics are interpreted. He is correct to some extent. From 2002 to 2003, the difference in percentage of White and Black fourth-graders with sufficient reading skills actually did narrow but only after increasing the year before.
No Child Left Behind has helped us quantify the achievement gaps based on race — an important step. Regardless, the numbers are pretty gloomy even in the most optimistic light. Overall, more than 60 percent of U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders in 2005 failed to perform at their grade level in reading and math.
That's an embarrassment, to say the least, for the world's richest nation and bodes ominously for our future. How on earth can we expect our future work force to compete in a global economy against competitors with better-educated children?
A recent New York Times Magazine story stopped just short of saying that No Child Left Behind is doomed to failure but suggested that if it did, we would only have ourselves to blame.
"We know now, in a way, what we did not when the law was passed — what it would take to make it work. And if the law does, in the end, fail — if in 2014 only 20 or 30 or 40 percent of the country's poor and minority students are proficient, then we will need to accept that its failure was not an accident and was not inevitable, but was the outcome we chose," concluded editor Paul Tough in the article.
Much like civil rights activists in the 1960s, we must seize control of our children's destiny. We cannot sit back and just expect our elected leaders to find a quick fix for a problem that took decades to develop. Just imagine if civil rights crusaders of the 1950s and 1960s had waited around for Uncle Sam to help ensure everyone's right to vote. Minorities in some parts of the South would probably still be taking literacy tests.
It is partially our responsibility as parents and members of the community to ensure that future generations acquire the skills needed to thrive in a dynamic and competitive world economy and to hold the powers that be accountable for their obligation to provide a good public education to all — regardless of color, religion or economic class.
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.