By Ian Rowe
“Have you ever heard of Michael Brown?” I have recently been posing this question to a range of people in various settings: from “woke” friends at intimate dinner parties, to well-informed researchers at education conferences, and to community leaders and elected officials dedicated to social justice.
The non-verbal response has usually been some combination of a pregnant pause, raised eyebrow, or facial expression conveying, “Duh, the answer is painfully obvious!!!” The spoken replies include “Ferguson,” or “That’s the black kid killed by police,” or “Hands up, don’t shoot, right?”
Yes, of course. The most well known Michael Brown today is the eighteen-year-old, black male robbery suspect who in 2014 was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Although the official DOJ investigation concluded that the evidence did not support an indictment of the officer, Brown’s death has come to symbolize for many the ultimate exercise of racist state power.
But there is another Micheal Brown, and his is a story of triumph.
In 1993, my Harvard Business School classmates and I often marveled at the caliber of remarkable black men we knew at Harvard’s graduate schools of business, law, politics, and education. Our collective presence at perhaps the world’s finest university was demonstrable evidence of America’s racial progress. Yet we knew that matters of race and race relations beyond (and even within) the Harvard campus were far from resolved.
The nation was still recovering from deadly riots triggered in 1992 by the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers who mercilessly beat Rodney King while he laid limp on the roadside. Outrage over the original assault captured on amateur video, and the subsequent not guilty verdicts, sparked bitter debate about police brutality towards unarmed black men throughout the country.
The advent of twenty-four-hour cable news networks made it impossible to ignore the seemingly daily stories of despair befalling African American men. A dominant narrative formed, that of young black males as an endangered species destined to suffer from inferior education, suffocating racism, or unjust violence meted out by rogue police officers. In our safe cocoon at Harvard, it seemed that our world inhabited by black men with outsized bright futures was far removed from the lives of these stereotypically imperiled young black men.
A quarter-century later, I have been struck by a melancholic sense of deja vu as our nation has been inundated with incessant stories of unarmed, young black men killed by police—like the Michael Brown of Ferguson.
His life and death is a tragedy that befalls too many young black men. Nationwide, police used fatal force on nineteen unarmed black men in 2017, according to a Washington Post database tracking every fatal shooting in the United States by a police officer in the line of duty since January 1, 2015.
Yet there is a story of a young man with the same name, but for two inverted vowels (note the “ea” instead of “ae”), which is a very different one. This seventeen-year-old Micheal Brown of Houston, Texas, applied to more than twenty colleges and universities, and in 2018 received full scholarships to all of them. If you want to share in a moment of utter joy, watch Micheal’s infectious response to receiving the good news of acceptance to Stanford University:
The tale of Micheal Brown from Houston is mostly one of triumph: His accomplishments are indicative not only of his educational attainment, but also those of countless other black men. Indeed, to many, a surprising more than one million black men are enrolled in college today. But the story is also, in its own way, tragic because the dominant narrative of his Ferguson counterpart keeps this Micheal’s story hidden from view, virtually invisible to those who might benefit from knowing his inspirational achievement.
For more than a generation, this invisibility of black male success has been a casualty of a broader, more widespread media focus and public perception of black male criminality and failure. Some progress has been made debunking the urban myth that there are more black men in prison than in college. Yet could it be that there are many young black men like Micheal Brown of Houston, Texas, on the path to leading prosperous lives in America, but we just don’t know it?
Consider research recently published by AEI and the Institute for Family Studies: “Black Men, Making It in America: The Engines of Economic Success for Black Men in America.” According to the study’s analysis of Census data, 57 percent of black men have made it into the middle class or higher as adults today, up from 38 percent in 1960. And the share of black men who are poor has fallen from 41 percent in 1960 to 18 percent in 2016. The research reveals that a number of factors—education, work, marriage, faith, military service, and a sense of personal agency—are all highly correlated to black male economic success in America.
The study’s authors—W. Bradford Wilcox, Wendy Wang, and Ronald Mincy—emphasize that the uplifting information about black male success is not to diminish the very real challenges that black men face from the criminal justice system, or racism overall. But what is remarkable about the positive factors identified in the report is that they chart identifiable avenues that young black men can take to realize the American Dream today.
Both Michael and Micheal were born black boys. Each of their respective life outcomes is a symbol of a real segment of black male life in America. But their dual—and dueling—realities means that neither their skin color nor their gender is necessarily the primary, or even defining, characteristic that determined their respective fates.
Those of us in the black community who have overcome discrimination must preach what we have practiced for how we have achieved our own levels of professional success—and more importantly share what we are teaching our own children to help them have the greatest likelihood to achieve their chosen path of fulfillment. For many of us, this goes well beyond just having the “Talk” with our black sons about avoiding police brutality.
It also means communicating to our sons that they have power in their individual choices, and that those decisions can shape their destiny despite structural barriers associated with race, class, and poverty. For those of us in education in particular, we need to be explicit about communicating to young black men—and children of all races and genders—the importance of and rewards that come from sequentially completing an education, working full-time, and forging a strong and stable family life (which usually entails marriage before the baby carriage).
Since 2010, I have run a network of public charter schools that now includes an all-boys elementary school in the heart of the South Bronx. Black boys and young people of all races need to know the triumph and tragedy of both Michael and Micheal Brown. But today the lopsided awareness of one tragic story deprives our children of an inspiring living example that can affirm the belief that they can have a chance at being captains of their own lives. As Micheal says, “Dream big, and don’t be afraid.”
It’s time to make the real life story of the other Micheal Brown invisible no more.
For more on these issues, watch the video of a June event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute called “Economic success for black men in America,” which was moderated by AEI’s Robert Doar and featured a panel that included Bradley Hardy, of American University, Michelle Singletary, of the Washington Post, and the author of this essay, Ian Rowe.
With the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, one of the most contentious issues within education policy may once again have its day in court. In the ongoing debate about religion and schools, Kavanaugh’s background suggests he believes in a more permeable relationship between public and private schools. Currently, there is a wall between the two in thirty-eight states that have provisions in their state constitutions known as Blaine Amendments, which forbid, with varying degrees of restrictions, government funding for religious schools.
EdChoice’s Mike McShane was the first out of the box on this issue immediately following the announcement. And like him I’m hoping that Kavanaugh’s nomination, coupled with the originalist shift of the court, means that Blaine Amendments will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history. There isn’t yet a high profile case on the issue, but it’s only a matter of time.
The most common policies for which Blaine Amendment challenges arise relate to private school choice, such as education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, and school vouchers. A pair of 5-4 decisions in 2002 and 2011 upheld the constitutionality of private school choice, but did little to stem the perennial controversy surrounding these constitutional provisions.
Indiana, where I lived and worked for four years, is a Blaine Amendment state. The specific language in Indiana’s constitution reads, “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.” The state’s supreme court unanimously found vouchers to be constitutional after looking at the issue from a few angles. Its primary conclusion was that families, not private schools, were the direct beneficiaries of the program, so it fell outside of Indiana’s Blaine Amendment. But the opposite happened in my current home state of Colorado. How will states that have forgone private school choice because of foreseeable legal challenges respond if Blaine Amendments are disposed of?
For one, states will have lots of models to look at and multiple decision points to consider (e.g., award amount, eligibility, payment method) if they choose to pursue voucher programs. Policymakers should insist upon a return on investment for the use of taxpayers’ dollars, while also avoiding overly burdensome requirements. But no matter how a program is designed, opponents will assuredly be out in force, even in a post-Blaine world. And the history and details of Indiana’s voucher program offer many useful lessons.
We Hoosiers blunted the politics of vouchers by keeping the bar high on accountability. The state already had an unusual policy that conditioned participation in high school sports on the administration of state testing, and most private schools accepted the bargain. This made it easier for us to require any voucher-accepting private school to administer the state test to all pupils, including non-voucher students. Similar provisions are absent from programs in other states, but holding private schools to the same bar took the air out of the argument that voucher programs lack any quality assurance.
Unsurprisingly, some school choice proponents were not fans of our tack. They would have preferred a lighter touch. And that’s OK. There’s room for some honest disagreement around how heavy a hand to take. But Indiana’s course made sense at the time because it was consistent with a larger strategy of holding low-performing schools to account. We didn’t believe vouchers would succeed in a vacuum. They fit into a comprehensive package that was guided by three core principles: competition, freedom, and accountability, and helped provide the North Star for our reform efforts, including private school choice.
Indiana’s voucher program is now seven years old. Thanks to Vice President (and former Governor) Pence and others, it has received unprecedented national exposure. Yet in spite of the newfound attention, many Hoosiers don’t even know the program exists. It goes to show that, even if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Blaine Amendments, states will still have many issues to wrestle with if they’re to build successful programs—and I haven’t even mentioned the political costs.
Indeed, there are few ed policy issues as polarizing and as partisan as school vouchers. Their pocked terrain is strewn with points and counterpoints. They have been called racist and a saboteur of democratic principles. And advocates often avoid the word “voucher” entirely, opting instead for euphemisms to evade controversy. In Indiana, for example, they’re called “choice scholarships.”
If we’re serious about educational equity, it seems to me that we need to get past religion in schools as a nonstarter. If a private school is effective at helping students become academically proficient, knowledgeable, and self-driven, why does it suddenly become problematic when that same school also includes prayer or religious texts? After all, public schools that teach meditation or character skills are pursuing similar aims in developing students’ emotional intelligence. If a school is effective, regardless of whether it’s public or private, shouldn’t we do everything we can to ensure more kids are in the effective ones?
My question is largely moot because many states can’t get off the starting blocks with Blaine Amendments in the way. Getting these provisions excised would be a huge victory for students and families, and an opportunity for greater innovation. Our sector has tirelessly advocated for high-performing charter schools, and we should be equally committed to helping our private schools grow and thrive. Not for the purposes of teaching religion, but to ensure more students in our country are able to receive an excellent education.
The Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings continues to issue annual reports on American education, but this year’s version leads one to rue the retirement of Tom Loveless and the exit of Russ Whitehurst (in his case to another berth at Brookings where he continues to churn out terrific stuff).
The 2018 report has three chapters that focus primarily on civics and social studies, which could have been a good thing because this part of the K–12 curriculum is in dreadful shape and so is student achievement in these disciplines. The problem is that the Brown Center team seems to have swallowed the popular view among social studies educators that “action civics” is what matters, not so much fundamental knowledge. They hail the awful “C3” framework of the National Council for the Social Studies, which is doing serious damage to the entire social studies curriculum, including history and geography, as well as civics. Then they judge state academic standards by their alignment with that framework. Yuck.
Okay, the report’s first chapter does supply some useful reanalysis of NAEP data on the achievement front (reading and math, too). NAEP infrequently tackles civics, resulting in spotty outcomes data, although fortunately this subject was included in the 2018 assessment at all three NAEP grade levels, so we will have new results sometime next year. Meanwhile, the Brown Center authors examined fourth grade results from 2010 and eighth grade results from 2014. The good news is that, despite much concern about curriculum narrowing during the NCLB era, civics scores didn’t get worse. The bad news is that they were low to begin with—and the racial gaps are wide. “Disconcerting” is how the Brookings folks term those gaps because, as they note, “civic participation affords political power, and broad participation is necessary for a healthy democracy.” If African American and Latino youngsters are even less knowledgeable about civics than their white and Asian peers, they’re apt to end up with less than their share of such participation at a time when they’d benefit from more of it.
Unfortunately, chapter two plunges back into the cloud-cuckoo land of C3 and underscores the NCSS (and now, apparently, Brown Center) view that “action civics” matters more than knowledge, understanding, and analysis. Inventorying current state standards for civics education, they “find reason to be optimistic,” but it’s because they see mounting evidence of educators pushing kids into civic engagement—and they lament the fact that “civics instruction is still more likely to incorporate discussion-based instruction than interactive activities or community engagement.”
As I wrote about C3 when it came out in 2013, “This framework is avowedly, even proudly, devoid of all content. Nowhere in its 108 pages will you find Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King (or Martin Luther), a map of the United States, or the concept of supply and demand. You won’t find anything that you might think children should actually learn about history, geography, civics, or economics. Instead, you will something called an ‘Inquiry Arc,’ defined as ‘as set of interlocking and mutually supportive ideas that frame the ways students learn social studies content.’”
You needn’t bother with the Brookings report’s final chapter, which looks at the “social studies teacher workforce”—and finds that it’s pretty much just like the rest of the K–12 teacher workforce, save for a few weird differences: This field contains more males, more coaches, and pays a bit better. There’s no shortage of teachers for social studies classrooms, either—and, it seems, nothing very interesting to say—so they conclude with such familiar chestnuts as “To promote a high-quality civics education…across the country, policy makers…will need to promote a healthy teacher workforce and sustainable teacher pipeline….”
Would that Loveless or Whitehurst were still in charge. We’d be far better served than by the banality and political correctness that seems to have taken over the Brown Center, at least on this one important topic.
On this week’s podcast, Matthew Chingos, director of the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Program, joins Mike Petrilli and Brandon Wright to discuss what high schools should be doing to address the college completion crisis. On the Research Minute, David Griffith examines the impact of New Orleans’s post-Katrina education reforms on short-term and long-term academic outcomes.
Amber’s Research Minute
Douglas N. Harris and Matthew F. Larsen, “What Effect Did the New Orleans School Reforms Have on Student Achievement, High School Graduation, and College Outcomes?” Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (July 2018).
From disproportionate incarceration to the stunning likelihood of downward social mobility, the news about black men in America is usually a bleak story of racism, inequality, and injustice. The statistics are undeniable, and the need for change is urgent. In a recent study, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) attempt a closer look at the flip side of the coin, asking what institutional and cultural forces do lead to economic success for black men in America today. The report highlights the connection between the 57 percent of black men who make it into the middle class or higher as adults and certain societal institutions: higher education, full-time work, the black church, the military, and marriage.
The report is part of the Home Economics Study, a joint effort from AEI and IFS. Researchers primarily use data from the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, in which a nationally representative sample is periodically interviewed about life events. The 1979 cohort began with 12,686 youths between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two, and in 2014 (the year of the most recent data used) retained 7,071 of the original cohort, now between the ages of forty-nine and fifty-eight. The 933 black men who remained in the 2014 wave make up the primary data used, with findings weighted to reflect the overall population of the original representative sample. Researchers supplement findings with data from the Census and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
The correlation of success with higher education and full-time work is expected, as the study acknowledges, but the correlation with the military, church, and marriage may be less obvious. Researchers found that black men who serve in the military are 9 percentage points more likely to be in the middle class by their fifties than those who did not; those who frequently attended church services when they were young are 10 percentage points more likely. The difference between those who are married and those who are not is a wide 50 percentage points: 70 percent of married black men are in the middle class in their fifties, compared to 20 percent of those who never married and 44 percent of those who are divorced. Contact with the criminal justice system has the opposite effect: 44 percent of black men who were charged with a crime when they were young were in poverty in their fifties, and only 28 percent made it to the middle class. As researchers point out, the proven higher likelihood of arrest and incarceration for black men than for white men for similar offenses means that this finding is essentially a measure of one effect of racism.
The study also explores how these institutions interact, finding that some of the results mediate each other or are associated with explanatory factors, like health in mid-life or knowledge, as measured by scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. For example, the long-lasting costs of contact with the criminal justice system include a lower likelihood of working full-time and marrying, while black men who serve in the military are more likely to do both of those things. In both cases, the effects of work and marriage statistically explained the effects of the other institution. Researchers also mention the way structural racism limits access to factors associated with success, like a more affluent childhood or good health.
The primary limitation of the study is the data used. After decades, attrition in the NSLY means that less than 1,000 black men remained. Those remaining may well be less likely to be poor or have encountered major life difficulties (the sample also did not include those who died). The results also reflect men who were youths in the 1970s; whether these institutions have the same effects and associations with success of black men who are young today or in more recent decades is unclear.
The results of this report highlight the value of institutional or community support, and its potential to help overcome the very real obstacles that exist for black men in America. Though the institutions examined here are no guarantee of success, they are all forms of connection to communities and support networks, while incarceration is the opposite: a form of disconnection that can cut off access to those supports. Whether the institutions themselves are the gateway to success, or whether the men who have access to institutional support are already better situated to succeed, is a topic worth further exploration.
Either way, although almost all the institutions mentioned are found in adulthood, K–12 education has a role to play in increasing black men’s access to them. The study’s results suggest the need for a continued focus on “college and career readiness” to connect more students to higher education and full-time work; a commitment of resources to keep students out of the criminal justice system; and a search for more ways to connect students to those communities and networks that will support them beyond their years in the public school system.
SOURCE: W. Bradford Wilcox, Wendy Wang, and Ronald B. Mincy, “Black Men Making It in America: The Engines of Economic Success for Black Men in America,” American Enterprise Institute (June 2018).
College completion rates have increased over time at both two- and four-year institutions, but they’re still too low. In a recent report, Harvard University Graduate School of Education professor Bridget Terry Long examines how completion rates vary by, among other things, institution type and student gender, and considers the high price both taxpayers and students pay for non-completion.
Professor Long used publicly available data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), an annual federal survey collecting information on enrollments, finances, completions, and other metrics from higher education institutions. “Institutional graduation rate” is calculated by examining how many students complete a degree at a school within 150 percent of the expected completion time, but does not reflect transfer students or those going part-time. To this Long added data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), which uses part- and full-time student records and links them across schools. She pulls from other studies and recent research on the topic of college completion to supplement her own inferences and analyses of the data.
Long finds that women had higher completion rates across all institutions types than men—be it two-year or four-year, public or private, non-profit or for-profit. The rate is particularly different at four-year colleges, where 48.2 percent of women earn a degree within six years, compared to 42.1 percent of men, and at private institutions, where the figure is 59.7 percent for women and 52.3 percent for men. Rates have improved for public institutions, but have declined at private universities. The overall completion rate at private institutions is 52.7 percent, a 25 percent decrease from 2006. Meanwhile the rate at public colleges is lower, at 40.3 percent, but this represents a 12 percent increase since 2006. And first-generation students fare better at four-year institutions than they do in two-year programs: a 49.1 percent completion rate versus 38.6 percent.
The study is limited by is IPEDS’s exclusion of students who transferred or were considered part-time by their institution, as well as its combined use of information from two different databases that produced different results. The report also broadens its scope by considering outside research and analysis that shed some light on the reasons for differences in completion rates across variables, but it offers so many potential causes that none are explored in much depth.
It’s good news that college completion rates are, on the whole, increasing, but we still have a ways to go. Growth can be seen especially in public institutions, whose students are raising the overall completion rate. Future research on this topic should further examine the different factors that reduce the likelihood of completion. This report is nevertheless illustrative of the problem. Non-completion hurts our students and our country. College dropouts often leave school with debt, bleak job prospects, and lost time that could’ve been spent learning employable skills.
SOURCE: Bridget Terry Long, “The College Completion Landscape: Trends, Challenges, and Why it Matters,” Third Way (May 2018).