Doing math problems gives me goose bumps. I felt that way even as a child.
So, it was no surprise that as I sat in church in 1963, I was solving math problems and only casually listening to the speaker discussing civil rights. Suddenly though, he got my attention.
If the children march, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, people will see that they simply want a better education. I wanted to study in schools with the best facilities and resources, and I was tired of castoff books from the white schools. And so, 50 years ago this May, I marched in the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Ala., and spent five terrifying days in jail.
I marched because, even at 12 years old, I believed that we in America could be better than we were, and I wanted to be seen for my talents and potential, rather than my race.
Thirty years ago, A Nation at Risk demanded that we all rethink our assumptions about what shapes human potential, who gains access to the best in American education, and how we measure success. The report argued in no uncertain terms that we could not ignore the talents of an increasingly diverse range of students. Helping all students succeed was not just the right thing to do; it was an economic imperative.
The report came at a particularly important period of time. In 1983, most educational leaders hadn’t faced up to the unevenness in our education system. We were not disaggregating data to zero in on the performance of girls and women, minority students, or those from low-income families. Many policymakers and educational leaders feared such analysis would embarrass particular groups or schools. A Nation at Risk made it clear we could no longer afford to look away.
Further, the report made clear that we couldn’t just compare Americans with one another, but needed to look at students across the globe. More than ever, Americans were competing with and working alongside people from Japan to Germany.
Nowhere was our competition starker than in math, science, and technology.
Those insights may seem obvious now, but in 1983, they were not. That wake-up call has led to considerable progress. In 1983, fewer than 20 percent of American adults held a college degree and just 72 percent had graduated from high school. Today, for the first time, more than 30 percent of American adults hold bachelor’s degrees, and almost 88 percent a high school diploma.
Nonetheless, the achievement gaps persist. While 83 percent of white students graduated from public high schools on time in school year 2009-10, only 66 percent of African-American and 71 percent of Hispanic students did so. By 2021, white students will account for only 48 percent of elementary and secondary school enrollments. We face rising competition—from China, India, and across the globe—and don’t have a single brain to spare. When students do graduate and head to college today, 40 percent arrive unprepared for college-level work and require remedial courses as freshmen or sophomores. If they are unprepared in general, they are even less prepared to major in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields critical to economic competitiveness.
But research has also shown that even students who arrive prepared and interested in studying the sciences often don’t make it. Far too many universities treat first-year courses as “weed out” courses. At the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where I serve as the president, we have been changing the culture of science. Not long after A Nation at Risk appeared, my colleagues and I faced up to some of the tough questions it raised: Why weren’t more students from traditionally underrepresented groups succeeding in the sciences? And—most critically—in what ways was our university responsible?
Ultimately, we found that students needed stronger systems of support, tighter connections with faculty and peers, and a curriculum that demanded they be active learners. Those lessons first took shape in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, a national model for producing minority scientists. We have learned that the strategies that helped minority students in the earlier years are just as effective in helping students across racial and economic groups and across the disciplines.
UMBC has shown that if you ask tough questions, you can find answers. A Nation at Risk called us to that task 30 years ago, and Americans today are better educated because of it. Yet the achievement gap is as pernicious now as it was then.
As we keep working to close it, we can draw hope from the progress we’ve made and inspiration from children like those in Birmingham.
Freeman A. Hrabowski III has served as the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County since 1992. His research and publications focus on science and math education, with special emphasis on minority participation and performance. He was recently named by President Barack Obama to chair the newly created President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
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