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Picture of Blacks' Pre-K-12 Education Detailed

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Fairfax, Va.

To educators who follow national education statistics, the numbers are gloomily familiar. At least from 4th grade on, black schoolchildren lag behind their white counterparts in reading, math, and other subjects. They drop out of school in greater proportions than white students and attend schools that offer more remedial courses.

But those often-quoted figures don't tell the whole story, according to researchers heading up a national center created by the United Negro College Fund.

Putting together a complete picture of the education of African-Americans is the mission of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, launched by the UNCF in February 1996 with $5 million in seed money.

The center, located in this Washington suburb, last week released the second of three hefty volumes of its statistical findings--a collection that is already the largest and most comprehensive on the education of black students.

What the Patterson researchers found this time around was that, despite the grim statistics marking their later school years, black children start out school full of enthusiasm. For example, 98 percent of black kindergartners say they look forward to school each day.

What is more, they come to preschool with skills that are on par with those of their white classmates--with one exception, vocabulary, where they lag far behind.

According to their parents, 16.5 percent of black children in preschool can recognize the letters of the alphabet, for example, compared with 21 percent of white preschoolers. Nearly 14 percent of black preschoolers and almost 13 percent of whites can count to 50. And black and white preschoolers' scores are comparable on tests measuring verbal memory, social, and motor skills.

"We see this disconnection between preschoolers and the behavior of African-American students later on," said Michael T. Nettles, the center's executive director.

What the researchers do not yet know is why.

That question is one that has come up time and again over the past year as Mr. Nettles and his co-investigator, Laura W. Perna, combed through 40 national databases for any and all statistics on the education of black Americans.

"Almost everything we look at reveals the need for more work," Mr. Nettles said in an interview in the center's spare, modern office suite. A noted researcher on education and assessment issues, he is on leave from his professorial duties at the University of Michigan to launch the center.

Research Raises Questions

In the first volume, released in February, the researchers reported that black women had far outdistanced black men in making educational gains over the past two decades. Twice as many African-American women as men earn bachelor's and master's degrees each year, and the number of black women earning professional degrees has more than tripled since 1976.

In researching the second volume, which focuses on preschoolers through 12th graders, the researchers learned that a higher percentage of black children than whites attend preschool--53 percent vs. 44 percent.

Almost a third of black preschoolers are in programs financed by Head Start, the federal early-childhood program for poor youngsters. But not much is known, Mr. Nettles said, about the quality of those programs.

The researchers found that in high school, black students are more likely than their white peers to attend schools dangerous enough to require metal detectors and security guards.

Thirty percent of all black pupils are in city schools. Yet, black students at seemingly safer suburban schools fear for their safety more than their urban counterparts do. Again, Mr. Nettles and his colleagues would like to know why.

From data on the nation's teaching force, the researchers learned that black teachers are vastly underrepresented in public and private schools. Even though black children make up 16.5 percent of the nation's public school population, only 7.4 percent of teachers are African-American. Of that number, nearly half are 50 or older.

"That means their numbers will be slowly dwindling," Mr. Nettles said. What researchers don't know is why more black teachers are older and how to get more younger black teachers into the pipeline.

Guiding Policy Decisions

To begin answering these questions, the center plans to hire two additional researchers to add to its bare-bones staff of six--only two of whom are researchers. They work three floors below the UNCF's main headquarters in a corporate office park here.

William H. Gray III, the former Democratic U.S. representative from Pennsylvania who took over as the president and chief executive officer of the 53-year-old group in 1991, said his years in Congress convinced him of the need for an institute like Patterson.

There, he was once asked to craft a response to legislative attempts to eliminate race-based scholarships. He found no data on the subject. But months later, after the effort was derailed, he learned that only 0.5 percent of all college scholarships were doled out by race. "Here we were, about to pass legislation on a one-half of a percent program," he said.

At all levels of government, Mr. Gray said, too many policy decisions affecting blacks are based on what he calls "knothole" scholarship. "You look through a knothole in the fence and you can see the third baseman and the shortstop and the left fielder, and you're supposed to determine how the game is going."

For More Information:

Copies of The African American Education Data Book, Volume II: Preschool Through High School Education are available for $25 each, plus $3.25 for shipping and handling, from the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, 8260 Willow Oaks Corporate Drive, P.O. Box 10444, Fairfax, Va. 22031-4511; (703) 205-2000; fax (703) 205-2012. The data will also soon be available through the center's Web site:

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