Math test and hand with pencil
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Academic Underachievement Represents the Real American Education Problem

Regardless of the headlines surrounding Critical Race Theory, Bob Woodson and Ian Rowe argue in Newsweek that American education faces a much larger problem.

The real issue in American education is a failure to enable the majority of students—regardless of race—to achieve academic excellence or even, in many cases, basic skills.

We have a national crisis of education that most Americans aren’t paying attention to. Our school systems produce a small group of high-achieving students at the top and a massive group of low-achieving students at the bottom.

America has fallen into a multi-generational crisis of illiteracy. In terms of raw numbers, more white students are reading below grade level than Black students. Of the 1.8 million students who took the ACT in 2019, 36 percent did not achieve college readiness in any of the four subjects. That means about 650,000 American students, despite spending thousands of hours in school, were not prepared for college-level work in a single subject. And that number does not include the millions of students who did not take the ACT. Even worse, 19 percent of American high school graduates are functionally illiterate, unable to read well enough to manage daily tasks.

Framing American educational failure in terms of critical race theory or systemic racism alone ignores the long history of Black American educational excellence. After the abolition of slavery, Black Americans took an incredible leap from illiteracy to literacy, from 20 percent in 1870 to nearly 70 percent by 1910, and many segregated schools, such as all-Black Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., sent higher percentages of their students to college than comparable white schools did.

While racial disparities do exist, closing them typically means achieving universal mediocrity. In West Virginia, for example, only 18.7 percent of Black male eighth graders were proficient in reading on the 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress; for white eighth graders, that number was 19.7 percent. If we closed that “racial achievement gap,” we would still be failing to educate 80 percent of Black and white students.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...