A national crisis gets second look


Panel: After 10 years, Maryland officials revisit the problems facing African-American men in search of solutions.

November 30, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT HAS BEEN 10 very long years since the Maryland Governor's Commission on Black Males declared that "the African-American male is slowly but surely becoming an endangered species" and put forth recommendations to address the problem.

"We have people who are dying physically, emotionally and spiritually," said then-state Del. (now-Rep.) Elijah E. Cummings, who had put in three years as chairman of the panel.

Despite a lot of talk, almost nothing has happened in the public schools to alter the situation, and now a new task force has been named to "gather some of the best minds in the state to help us develop strategies," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state schools superintendent.

FOR THE RECORD - Last Sunday I mistakenly identified Ohio state Sen. C.J. Prentiss as a man. Old habits die hard.

Let's hope this task force, headed by Dunbar Brooks of the state Board of Education and Orlan Johnson of the University System of Maryland regents, has better luck than the Cummings panel. Let's hope the product of its deliberation doesn't end up gathering dust.

The plight of the black man has become a national crisis. It's been gathering for so long, and with so little real progress to show in addressing it, that it doesn't receive the glaring headlines it deserves. But with the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision looming in May, a safe bet is that the status of the African-American man will be evidence, at least to many, that Brown accomplished little.

The crisis is evident in almost any student-related statistic, from suspension rates to student achievement to college enrollment by race and gender. Visit any community college campus or, for that matter, many private colleges and observe the preponderance of women. Even high schools in Baltimore are experiencing lopsided female enrollment as black men drop out as soon as they're able.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's report card, doesn't release results by race and gender combined, but the Maryland Department of Education does. Here's one stark set of statistics drawn at random from the Maryland School Assessment this March: Statewide, 82 percent of white girls scored at the proficient and advanced levels in fifth-grade reading. Seventy-seven percent of white boys scored at the same level, 53 percent of black girls and 43 percent of African-American boys.

This nearly 2-to-1 achievement disparity between white girls and black boys of the same age isn't just a worrisome trend that appeared recently. It's a gulf, and it's wider than it was when the Cummings panel reported a decade ago. And don't think the gap results from the concentration of black students in Baltimore City. If we look at the number of schools demonstrating "adequate yearly progress," another measure required by No Child Left Behind, the black-white ratio in the suburbs is similar to that of the city.

Many educators, Grasmick among them, say that the crisis should be addressed by concentrating on early childhood. Grasmick has suggested, only half in jest, that Maryland end formal schooling after the 11th grade and divert the money saved to preschool. Districts are now required to conduct full-day kindergarten, but a study last year showed that only about half of Maryland children eligible are ready for school at age 5. Other studies show that if they don't learn to read well in the earliest grades, they are essentially lost by middle school.

Good news will filter in this week from the hustings. Montgomery County, a leader in getting children ready for school at an early age, will report good progress in teaching children to read simple stories in kindergarten and in building those reading skills through the second grade. And Tuesday in Houston, the organizations of black and Hispanic state legislators will announce a combined campaign to close the yawning achievement gap nationally.

Ohio state Sen. C.J. Prentiss, a leader of the campaign, called equity in education "a civil right yet unrealized." He's right, and that's the most persuasive reason the full $1.3 billion recommended by the Thornton Commission to level the playing field in Maryland schools should be fully funded.

Professor remembered for his passion for writing

"Writing is an abnormal act. It has reached the point where writing a letter is something people gird themselves for. In many people's lives, very little writing goes on. There is no need for it."

That's a quote from Hugh Kenner, then chairman of the English department at the Johns Hopkins University, in a 1983 interview in U.S. News & World Report. Kenner, who died a week ago, was a Renaissance man with many interests, one of which was writing.

In the past, Kenner observed, people would pick up a pen to write invitations or decline one. "But the invasion of the telephone changed all that."

Kenner had no way of knowing two decades ago that e-mail, with its truncated writing in code, would launch a second invasion, and that e-mail, combined with the cordless phone, would render meaningful writing even more endangered.

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