Education-The Surest Route to the Economic Mainstream

There was plenty of discussion at the National Urban League’s just-concluded annual conference in the nation’s capitol. We had such guests as President Bush, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Education Secretary Rod Paige, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, of the District of Columbia, and Representative Charles B. Rangel, of New York—and that’s just a beginning of a long list—as guest speakers.

But the important point is that they were not only guests. They were partners with the scholars, politicians, community activists, policy wonks, undergraduate and graduate students and others in attendance in sharpening the dialogue about what African Americans should do to take advantage of the unparalleled opportunity that is the American society of the 21st century.

In my opening address to the conference I labeled what needs to occur a “development revolution,” having snatched that phrase from my colleague, T. Willard Fair, head of the Urban League of Greater Miami.

I said this new movement is the successor to African Americans’ Freedom Revolution of the 19th century, which cast aside the physical and psychological shackles of slavery, and the still-to-be-completed Equality Revolution of the 20th, whose goal was to secure equal status under the law and eliminate government-sanctioned segregation. And I said that all of these spring from the same longstanding African-American tradition: marching toward the American mainstream.

Well, it’s clear to me and many others that if the economic mainstream is the ultimate destination of the development revolution, education is its staging ground. Being educated is not only required to earn a living, it’s fundamental to what being an American citizen means.

Understanding that point is even more critical in today’s super-competitive global economy, where there’s no hiding place from its demands for skill and knowledge and the ability to keep learning new things at a moment’s notice.

Thus, it’s even more imperative to understand academic failure simply isn’t an option in our Information Age economy. If it’s true that, as the Urban League’s slogan says, our children equal our destiny, we can’t afford to have any of our children failing. To mix metaphors, Black America has got to have all of its people pulling on the oars if we’re to continue that march into the mainstream.

Yet, we know that many black children are falling behind. The recent National Assessment of Education Progress indicated that 63 percent of black fourth-graders could barely read. This is intolerable—because reading is fundamental to intellectual development.

For all of the energy-sapping demands of the workplace, parents must take charge of making sure their children are achieving in school. That means parents, and the rest of the community, must have zero tolerance for failing schools. Schools that fail children—our future—are not acceptable, and it’s up to the community to change it.

As I described in a recent column, that kind of educational revolution occurred in Mount Vernon, New York, whose school population is 90-plus percent black, during the last three years. In that New York City suburb, the black community and its allies literally revolted, threw out the old school board and superintendent, and elected a new school board, which hired a dynamic superintendent committed to achievement.

The result: a school system in which had languished near the bottom of the statewide reading lists now soars near the top. Three years ago, only a third of its fourth graders read at grade level. Now, 77 percent do systemwide, and the percentages are much higher at some individual schools.

This is what the wedding of community involvement to high educational standards and a belief that all children can perform produces. The schoolchildren of Mount Vernon, once written off as educationally deficient, have been inspired by expectation. They, and their parents, have shown what happens when individuals and a community are inspired by expectation.

That’s no surprise. I’ve seen it time and time again throughout the communities involved in the Urban League’s own Campaign for African-American Achievement, our three-year-old effort staged with the aid of the Congress of National Black Churches and a host of black civic organizations to help young people understand that achievement in school matters. Thus far, more than 10,000 students with B or higher averages have joined our national achievers society.

That same spirit is why the Urban League and Scholastic, Inc., the world’s largest publisher of children’s books and magazines, have joined to create a guide for parents, Read to Rise, on how to help children become good readers. We’ll begin distributing 250,000 copies of this book of practical tips through Urban League affiliates and other organizations in September.

Programs like these are part of our legacy, and our responsibility. They emanate from the same spirit, the same sense of values—one could describe it as confidence in one’s self and one’s people—that powered both the Freedom Revolution and the Equality Revolution. One can put its meaning this way: My children are going to be able to compete at the highest levels of human endeavor …

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