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Confronting the still-real burdens of history

As traditional-calendar schools welcomed their students over the past two weeks, state authorities rolled out fresh data with moderately good news about educational achievement in North Carolina. But the bad news was old news — which is what makes it especially troubling.

The rate at which our high school students graduate in four years reached nearly 86 percent in 2016, the 11th consecutive year with graduation gains. While still below the national average, North Carolina students’ scores on the ACT college-readiness test rose slightly in 2016 for the fourth consecutive year.

The 2015-16 School Performance Grades, mandated by the legislature, showed an increase in schools receiving As and Bs, up from 30.3 percent in the previous year to 33 percent. Simultaneously, schools scoring Ds and Fs declined from 27.9 percent to 23.2 percent.

While it’s OK to celebrate, modestly, evidence of improvement, it’s also a time for sober reflection on persistence of achievement gaps along the fault lines of race and low-income. Beyond the campaign back-and-forth and fact-checking over the $50,000 target on teacher pay, loom deeper, difficult issues rooted in history.

The recent ACT results show that 39 percent of white students met three or more benchmarks for college-readiness; and yet, only 16 percent of Latinos and 8 percent of black students met that standard. The wide gap has remained relatively constant since 2013 when all North Carolina high schools began administering the ACT.

More than 9 out of 10 schools, including both traditional public and public-funded charters, that scored Ds or Fs have enrollment of more than 50 percent of students from families in poverty or near-poverty. Weighing down on so-called high-poverty schools are such factors as a large cohort of inexperienced faculty and of students suffering from the “toxic stress’’ of their home and neighborhood environments.

And yet, from the experiences of heroic public schools, as well as KIPP academies and Cristo Rey schools, we know methods that elevate educational achievement among black and poor children. We know that high-quality pre-K can make a difference in getting more youngsters ready to succeed. We know that socio-economic integration — classrooms with a mix of middle-class and poorer students — create conditions that pay off for education and society.

We know the difficulties in facing racial and class-based issues stemming from our state’s history of racial segregation and of low-wage factory jobs, for whites and blacks, that didn’t require much schooling. A half-century after the Supreme Court dismantled legal segregation, white parents have increasingly accepted racial integration; and yet we also know that a tipping point exists, somewhat below 50 percent of black students in a school, at which many white parents will flee to an alternative. And now that blacks and Latinos constitute approximately half of public school students, school boards find it difficult to assign students in the right mix, even where they have the political will to do so.

When he was president, George W. Bush spoke out against what he called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.’’ He decried schools that failed to lift expectations for all students. In an election year, it’s a moment to ponder whether our state and local policy makers have had “low expectations” of our schools — low expectations articulated through incremental policy making and self-imposed budget limits.

As we ponder our public schools and the burdens of history, it may not be too much of a stretch to consider the lesson delivered by Georgetown University in its recent initiative to document and respond even now to the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 that saved the venerable Jesuit-sponsored institution from financial collapse. In addition to such steps as renaming two buildings, Georgetown will give admission preference to descendants of the slaves sold from the Maryland plantations that the Jesuit order of priests owned in that era.

At Georgetown today, no student, no administrator, no faculty member, no Jesuit is responsible for the university’s association with the slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries. Similarly, today North Carolina, a state that has roughly doubled in population since 1970, is filled with parents, teachers, schools administrators, state legislators, and state and local education policy makers who did not impose or live under the Jim Crow laws that prevented blacks from voting or kept black young people in inferior schools.

Still, history matters, as David J. Collins, a Jesuit priest who chaired the Georgetown working group on slavery, memory, and reconciliation, explored in an essay for The New York Times. Offering an insight that reaches beyond his university, he wrote, “This story cries out its injustice against our American tendency to distance ourselves from the ugly realities in our history.”

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.