School district can only do so much to close gap

A mere 52 percent of black males in Beaufort County's public schools pass the state's high school exit exam on their first attempt, a consultant told the Board of Education at a workshop last week.

This made stark a reality most already suspected -- a yawning achievement gap separates black males from other demographic groups in our schools.

By comparison, white females, the highest-performing group, had a first-time pass rate of 92 percent.

Board members spent much time offering ideas -- many of them quite thoughtful -- about the causes of this educational chasm, but little time debating the motion they passed as a result of that discussion: The achievement of all students, but particularly black males, is now the district's top instructional priority.

What that means in practical terms is anyone's guess.

Tellingly, board member Wayne Carbiener noted that although he wants desperately to eliminate this achievement gap, even if the district had millions of dollar to do it, he wouldn't know how.

Indeed, the board's decree belies public institutions' impotence when confronted with complex problems deeply rooted in cultural dysfunction. When it comes to the aggregate performance of black males, public schools face two chief problems -- one philosophical, the other practical.

The board's awkward aim -- to make all students a "top" priority, while making black males an even higher priority -- lays bare the philosophical problem. Public schools' mission is to educate all children, regardless of their race or any other attributes. That doesn't mean students must be educated in identical fashion. But it does mean that declaring any subset of the whole a "top priority" is antithetical to public schools' mission. In their desire to help black males, school officials must be careful not to lose sight of their obligations to other students, including the gifted and average.

This contradiction is not merely semantic.

Anticipated budget cuts will force proponents of various programs to fight for a share of finite funding, the allocation of which is the truest indication of a public body's priorities. So what is the school board to do when those who run biology labs, string ensembles and outreach programs for black males tussle over the same dollar?

The biology teacher and strings instructor will argue, rightly, their programs are available to anyone and thus more compatible with public schools' broad mission. If they are savvy, they also will argue the achievement gap is not primarily the schools' to close.

Which hints at the second, practical problem.

Black males do not fail because they are black. And as the era of segregation shrinks in our rear view mirror, it is increasingly difficult to argue schools fail them because they are black. Indeed, the achievement gap is less and less about race or institutions.

Rather, it is cultural.

Poverty, incarceration and absentee fathers are among the problems that disproportionately afflict black youth and contribute to academic failure. Public schools are ill-equipped to solve these problems, notwithstanding many years and dollars spent trying.

That's not to say the school district should ignore this troubling achievement gap. But the board should be reasonable in devoting scarce resources to address a problem it will not come close to solving on its own.

If black males and their families don't make education a top priority, it won't matter much whether the school district does.

Without solutions that begin in the home, 10 years from now, another school board will look at another alarming set of numbers, make another earnest pledge to do something about it but make no more progress than those before them.