It seems that politicians and the media can’t stop talking about teacher pay. The claim that the average teacher salary will reach $50,000 this year has been the subject of numerous political advertisements, fact checks, and opinion pieces. Yet, I do not recall seeing one political advertisement, fact check, or opinion piece tackling our state’s most serious problem – the persistent failure to raise academic achievement for African-American male students in our public schools.

It is not a new problem, nor one exclusive to North Carolina. For over a decade, the Schott Foundation has published “The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males,” a report highlighting disparities in student performance and suspension rates that persist across student subgroups in every state. They observe that black male students often encounter a “practically insurmountable chasm of denied educational opportunities that consigns them to poverty and limited chances to succeed in life.” What does that chasm look like in North Carolina?

  • Approximately 35 percent of the nearly 90,000 African-American male students tested in grades 3-8 attained grade-level proficiency on 2015-16 state reading tests. Less than a third of all African-American elementary and middle school male students were proficient in math. Statewide proficiency rates were over 20 percent higher in both subjects.
  • Among elementary and middle school students, reading proficiency rates for African-American male students peaked at 37 percent in fourth grade and dropped as low as 31 percent in eighth grade.
  • While 45 percent of African-American male third-graders were proficient in math, only 22 percent of eighth-graders reached proficiency, half of the statewide rate.
  • Just 34 percent of the over 19,500 African-American males tested met proficiency standards on the high school Math 1 course. Less than one in four were classified as “career- and college-ready.” The statewide Math 1 proficiency rate was nearly 61 percent, while 50 percent of students scored attained “career- and college-ready” levels.

All told, roughly one-third of African-American males in North Carolina are proficient in reading or math. Moreover, only one in four demonstrated that they are prepared for college coursework or have the skills to become productive members of the work force by the time they reach high school. Given that the dropout rate for African-American males is consistently higher than other student subgroups, too many don’t even get that far.

So what can be done? The Schott Foundation report calls on states and school districts to “adopt tailored approaches adapted to personal educational needs, social contexts, and students’ learning styles.” Indeed, “one size fits all” approaches will not solve the problem. The performance of African-American male students is not representative of the general population or even specific subgroups. Proficiency rates for African-American males were lower, sometimes significantly lower, than Hispanic males, African-American females, and economically disadvantaged students generally.

An initial step would be to find ways to empower schools, parents, neighborhoods, churches, nonprofit groups, philanthropic organizations, and the private sector to address the specific needs of African-American males in their communities. Public and private school choice must be a major part of that effort.

Statewide statistics listed above paint a dire picture, but averages can never tell the whole story. Indeed, some schools are doing a marvelous job of educating African-American males. Many of the best are schools of choice. African-American male students excelled at a number of alternative, early college, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), magnet, and International Baccalaureate schools within the district system. A number of charter schools, particularly Henderson Collegiate in Vance County, Triangle Science and Math Academy in Wake County, and KIPP: Gaston College Preparatory in Northampton County, also earned high marks.

And African-American voters want more choice and pro-choice candidates. According to a recent poll commissioned by Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, more than eight in 10 African-American voters believe state lawmakers must do more to expand school choice. In addition, 65 percent said that they would be more likely to support candidates who champion increasing educational options.

PEFNC is quick to add that, despite their overwhelming support for school choice, African-American voters still tend to vote for candidates that oppose the expansion of educational options. Moreover, a handful of influential civil rights groups have become increasingly hostile to charter schools and other forms of school choice.

In the end, school choice advocates have the unenviable task of overcoming numerous political, ideological, and institutional barriers that stand in the way of increasing the number of public and private educational options for our most vulnerable populations. We have made progress, but there is still a lot of work to do.

Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is director of research and education studies for the John Locke Foundation.