President Obama signs executive order authorizing African-American education office.
The Obama administration has launched the first steps of an ambitious plan to dramatically improve academic achievement among African-American students from the "cradle to career."
President Obama signed an executive order last week, which established the first ever White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans.
The new initiative will coordinate federal agencies, various partners and communities nationwide. Its charge will include seeking and sharing evidence-based `best practices' around the critical issue of black student achievement.
The initiative has sweeping goals. They include providing African-American students with greater access to high-level, rigorous course work and support services; developing and retaining greater numbers of top-notch African-American teachers and principals; reducing dropout rates and increasing college access; and expanding access to quality adult education, literacy, and technical programs.
President Obama recently told an audience at the National Urban League convention in New Orleans, he wanted to ensure "every child has greater access to a complete and competitive education from the time they're born," with pathways to high school and college graduation, and a productive career.
"Since day one, President Obama has made it a top priority for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president.
In order to achieve that goal, Jarrett said, the Obama administration will dedicate new resources and support services to the new initiative, which builds on the president's existing educational efforts.
They include a 2010 executive order he signed to strengthen the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
"This was a natural progression," said Jarrett.
The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans will use a series of approaches to tackle its mission.
Among them is creation of an office housed within the U.S. Department of Education, designed to work with the president, his cabinet and other federal agencies.
Additionally, a newly created presidential advisory commission will consult with president Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The advisory group will also help lead a national dialogue that engages the business, philanthropic, non-profit communities and academia on educational matters involving the African-American community.
"The nation's future will depend heavily on the extent to which we educate all of our nation's children," said Dr. Freeman Hrawbowski, a nationally renowned educator who has been tapped to chair the commission.
Named one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World" in 2012 by Time magazine, the Birmingham native marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a child and now serves as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). U.S. News & World Report ranked UMBC the #1 "Up and Coming" university in the nation for three years straight, including in 2011; the school has been widely recognized for producing significant numbers of black male and minority graduates in the sciences.
"There are important questions to be raised about what we can do academically and emotionally to increase the numbers of African-Americans who excel and go on to college," said Hrawbowski.
“In the `60s, we saw solidly middle-class students who were the first in the family to get a college degree. But for some first-generation students, it seems harder than ever.”
Indeed, in the decades since the Brown v. Board of Education decision was meant to place America on a path toward educational equality, the school system has undergone significant transformation.
While many African-American students now attend integrated elementary, secondary schools and colleges, substantial obstacles to equal educational opportunity remain.
Various studies have shown that African-American students lack equal access to safe schools, and challenging curriculum such as college-preparatory classes. Other data shows that black students disproportionately experience school discipline and referrals to special education.
Moreover, an achievement gap continues to persist between African-American students and their peers. Data shows black students lag behind their domestic peers by an average of two grade levels, and more than a third fail to graduate from high school on time with a traditional diploma. An even greater number of African-American males do not earn traditional high school diplomas, a factor experts say contributes to higher incarceration rates.
“For too long, the experience of far too many African-American students in far too many places has been marred by school districts whose ongoing practices have failed our children,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous.
He joined Al Sharpton, members of Congress and educators who were present in the Oval Office, when president Obama signed the executive order.
If fully implemented, Jealous added, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans can meet its goals.
“Be it in Mississippi or Manhattan, North Carolina or South L.A., the data has shown – and too many family’s experiences have proven – that we still need the power of the federal government to ensure all our nation’s children are treated fairly,” he said.
The work of the initiative will begin in the coming weeks and months, said Jarrett.
“We’re seeking a cadre of experts. … we want to take a holistic approach,” she said.
While acknowledging that the issues are challenging, Jarrett said improving the educational outcomes of African-Americans will provide economic, social and other benefits for the black community and the nation.
“We can start to move the needle and begin making progress,” she said.