02/07/2014 03:47 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

What NAEP Tells Us About How Much America Cares About Black Children

It would seem everyone has an answer for how to improve education. There has been progress, but not the sea change required for more citizens to enter the middle-class. This week, I'm hosting guest blogger Dr. Michael Holzman, a researcher and author who explores this challenge and provides broad-based policy recommendations that could lead to systemic improvement. Holzman recently discussed these issues with me on the National Council of Educating Black Children Talk Radio show that I co-host weekly. In this blog post, Holzman builds on ideas I shared in my Jan. 31 post, "With Racial Disparities Aplenty, We Still Need Black History Month." - Eric J. Cooper

By Michael Holzman
Guest blogger

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is considered the best barometer of how well schools are educating our nation's children. The latest results are no cause for celebration. They show a widening racial gap in one key measure of reading success, and remind us of the troubling differences in academic achievement for children of color from state to state.

In education, the Grade 8 reading assessment is a watershed. By that time, students have attended school for at least nine years -- ample opportunity for individual challenges to be identified and overcome. If students cannot read as well as they should by eighth grade, the conventional wisdom is that it is unlikely they will be able to learn anything else easily or well.

That makes the latest NAEP results especially distressing. In 2002, 13 percent of black eighth-graders read at grade level, compared with 39 percent of whites -- a gap of 26 percentage points. Last year, 16 percent of black students were at or above grade level, compared with 44 percent of whites -- a difference of 28 percentage points. The gap is widening.

Worse, nearly 90 percent of black males in the eighth grade did not read at grade level last year. Will they catch up? Will they drop out? Or will they be "graduated," still unable to read well enough for a career or college?

Adult statistics aren't any better. Nineteen percent of adult black Americans have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 30 percent of whites; and only 16 percent of black males have a college degree. More than 80 percent of young black men, then, have little chance of obtaining middle-class jobs or raising a family much above the poverty level.

The disparities don't end there. Achievement gaps vary widely by state. For example, 57 percent of white eighth-graders in Massachusetts and 55 percent in New Jersey read at or above grade level in 2013, compared with 24 percent of black eighth-graders in Massachusetts and 26 percent in New Jersey. By comparison, 11 percent of black eighth-graders in Indiana read at grade level (compared with 39 percent of whites); in Wisconsin, 9 percent of blacks and 42 percent of whites in the eighth grade read at grade level.

It's bad enough that black students lag white students in academic achievement. But why are black students in Wisconsin and Indiana much less than half as likely to learn to read as those in Massachusetts and New Jersey?

We talk about the role of personal responsibility in achievement and usually this conversation is directed at parents, families and students. We need to start holding school administrators and school board members accountable. Every day, in cities like Indianapolis and Milwaukee, people who run the schools -- fail either through conscious decision or by doing nothing -- to make the academic achievement of black students a priority.

Understandably, some parents react by giving up on public institutions: to home school or set up parent-run schools and tutorial programs outside the district structure. That's fine for children who have access to these alternatives. But what happens to the rest of them?

The problem is that the institutions of the state -- the school districts and state departments of education -- essentially are at war with these children. School finance systems tend to concentrate funds among school districts serving better-off families -- overwhelmingly white -- and give short shrift to those with poorer, black families. Within districts, resources are diverted from schools serving poor black families and directed toward schools with wealthier families.

Until this is changed, minority children will continue to flow -- ill-educated and unprepared for careers or college -- into poverty and frequently, if they are male, into the prison system.

How to solve the problem? Change these harmful policies and practices.

First, schools need to be financed by statewide tax systems, as they are in Vermont and Hawaii, instead of by local property taxes.

Second, funding should be needs-based, as it is in Hawaii and in New Jersey's high-poverty Abbott districts, which, under a court order, receive higher per-pupil funding to equalize access to quality education. All children must be educated to high levels, regardless of family circumstance.

Finally, the teaching profession must be reformed so that all teachers -- new ones and veterans -- have a solid grounding in their subject areas and in appropriate teaching methods for their students. This knowledge has to be refreshed regularly. And teachers must be empowered to incorporate this knowledge into the organization of their schools, so it can reach their students.

These are big changes, but they are needed if we are truly to raise the bar on achievement for all students.

Michael Holzman is a researcher and author. He has served as consultant to numerous foundations and is the author of the Schott Foundation's series "Public Education and Black Male Students: A State Report Card."

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at