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Published: Saturday, 11/13/2010

Intolerable gap

Black male students in elementary and secondary schools could be the nation's leading lagging indicator. To understand the depth of the crisis in American education. there's no better group to watch.

A new report by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of big, urban public school districts, concludes that the achievement gap between black students and everyone else has become an ever-widening chasm. Citing data from National Assessment for Educational Progress tests given to fourth and eighth-graders in 2009, the council says black boys have less academic proficiency now than they did in earlier years.

The statistics are heartbreaking: Only 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent (no sterling statistic either) of their white male peers. Just 12 percent of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys.

This is a national disgrace, and an issue of national security in an era of increasing global competitiveness. Can the disparity in performance be attributed to historical forces, such as systemic discrimination or structural racism, or are other matters at work? Poverty, by itself, does not seem to explain the statistical gulf.

There is hope in successful school reform efforts, such as one in Baltimore. Good teachers, mentor programs, and aggressive intervention to lower truancy seem to be having an effect. The graduation rate for black males in Baltimore's public schools was 57 percent last year, compared with 51 percent in 2005-06. For the first time in that city's history, black and Hispanic students have a lower dropout rate than white students.

Such gains are heartening. But if they are to be reproduced elsewhere, Americans will have to begin discussing some very uncomfortable truths.

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