A recent report by The Education Trust – West, called Black Minds Matter, calls out the problem California is having with graduating black students who are ready for college or a career after high school. That organization’s executive director, Ryan Smith, writes in Ed Week about the issue:

Among California’s many racial and ethnic groups, Black students, whether from upper or lower income families, are the least likely to have access to Advancement Placement classes, be placed in a full sequence of college-preparatory courses, and complete a college degree.  They are most likely to be taught by novice, low-paid teachers, and while in school be suspended or expelled.  Nationally, Black girls are suspended six times as often as their White counterparts.

Before you blame poverty, Smith points to institutional barriers that aggravate problems with student achievement.

We tend to point outward at issues of poverty and parenting to explain the plight of Black students.  While poverty certainly plays a role in the disparities we see, the data largely reflects a history of institutional decisions—both sins of commission and omission—that we as educators, policymakers, and the public have made….We’ve implemented many more policies that have often built obstacles rather than bridges to Black student success (as noted in the report’s policy timeline)….Education leaders, not Black students or their families, decide which schools to equip with college-preparatory classes and where to place our most effective teachers.  We’re complicit in the fact that nationally less than a third of our high schools with the highest percentage of Black and Latino students offer calculus while inversely more than half of high schools with the lowest percentage of Black and Latino students offer the course.  We’ve created excessive barriers to college degrees by allowing students of color to languish in remedial courses for years without recourse.

Smith says we can all do better. We should take note of districts that are improving outcomes for black students, including efforts that are promising in Oakland, San Bernadino, and San Francisco.

One San Diego high school Smith mentions, Kearny Digital Media and Design School, graduates all of its students even though 70% of them are low income.

More than merely recognizing schools that are winning, there should be activism that push education leaders to do what research says will make a difference for black students. To that end, the BMM report offers clear recommendations for state policy makers and leaders of school districts.

For state policy makers:

  • Provide equitable access to affordable and high quality early learning opportunities.
  • Develop and improve data and accountability systems so educators, advocates, and parents have up-to-date information that can help them identify and address disparities.
  • Break the relationship between ZIP code and school performance, so that a child’s address does not determine his or her educational destiny.
  • Ensure all students have the effective educators, rigorous standards and instruction, and academic resources they need to succeed
  • Address school climate issues through policy change
  • Expand access to higher education, especially our UC and CSU campuses, for underrepresented students, and increase accountability for persistence and graduation.

For leader of school districts:

  • Within districts, provide intensive supports to struggling or highly segregated schools, and offer families at those schools meaningful ways to be engaged and secure the best educational opportunities for their children.
  • Expand access to early education opportunities, especially for low-income families and families of color through partnerships between school districts and early education providers, make quality preschool and early education more accessible and affordable to families. This includes bringing preschools into the school district in order to create more seamless pre-K to third-grade transitions.
  • Provide all students, including African American students, rigorous college and career-preparatory courses and instruction. Provide targeted supports to students who are struggling academically.
  • Improve school climate so that students feel safe, supported, and engaged in — rather than pushed out of — school.
  • Offer Black students a full range of health and social services — in partnership with community-based organizations and other agencies — to ensure they are physically, socially, and emotionally ready to learn.
  • Meaningfully and deliberately engage African American parents, students, and community members in school and district decisions.

Activists locally and nationally who may have lacked an agenda for organizing around education issues now have one, thanks to Education Trust.

If black lives truly matter, then it must be the case that black minds matter even more.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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