Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate educators and civil rights leaders like Shirley Chisholm, Mary Jane McLeod-Bethune, Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and many more who emphasized the importance of providing all students access to a quality education. They understood as George Washington Carver said, that “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” That is why this month we also celebrate the progress African-American students are making in education.
The nation’s high school graduation rate—82 percent— is at a record high and the gap between white students and African-American and Hispanic students receiving high school diplomas continues to narrow.
The improvements that we are seeing in high school graduation rates are possible because of the historic reductions in the dropout rate, led by African-American, Latino, and low-income students.
Moreover, today there are a million more African-American and Latino students in college than there were in 2008. And in 2014—the most recent year for which we have data— the most diverse and largest class of Americans completed their higher education in our history. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have significantly contributed to the number of graduates in our nation in critical areas. HBCUs make up just 3 percent of colleges and universities, but produce 27 percent of African-Americans with bachelors’ degrees in STEM fields.
While we have made great gains in “unlocking the golden door of freedom” and expanding equity and opportunity in education for African-American students, there is much more work to be done. The Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed by President Obama in December, is an opportunity to take additional steps to ensure our students graduate high school prepared for college, careers and life.
Building on the progress that we’ve made over the past seven years, this year I am focusing on three things:
Ensuring equity and excellence throughout our cradle to career education systems
Lifting up the teaching profession and school leadership
Ensuring that students who began college and postsecondary training complete their studies, especially low-income students and students of color
I encourage everyone to reflect on how we will work together toward strengthening the “golden door of freedom” for all of our students. It is only by doing so that we can continue to make sure that each of us are woven into the fabric of success desired for all of our nation’s children.