05/03/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mind the Gap

I had coffee with a former student of mine a few days ago. Even in high school, she demonstrated exceptional drive and motivation. Today, she attends a local university, works, and sets her eyes determinedly on the future. She has a bright one.

As we caught up, though, I was saddened to learn about the number of students I taught who are no longer enrolled in college, after just 18 months. Away from the insular security of the small charter high school from which they graduated, the students did not quite know how to contend with the imposing, impersonal nature of higher education. Without the guidance and nurture offered in high school, many of these students felt unable to succeed at a four-year institution, especially one that was far from home.

A recent article in Newsweek, written by Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert, validates my concerns with some hard data. The authors provide an incisive analysis of the disparities in college graduation rates between white and minority students. While college admissions closely mirror American demographics in terms of race and socioeconomic status, the students who actually receive diplomas at the end of four years don't look much different from those of decades past.

These data raise questions that converge at one of the most sensitive points in the American psyche - educational performance and race. Yet they are important to study if we are serious about not only closing the gaps between white and minority students, but also about maintaining the dynamism and competitive edge that have made the American economy the standard-bearer for most of the past century.

The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, seeks to reinvigorate education with his Race to the Top initiative. The idea is to incentivize schools with greater funding if they can meet certain academic goals. A signature part of this effort is to support the emergence of more charters schools, like the one my students attended, in the hopes of placing upward pressure on low-performing traditional public schools.

The intention behind Race to the Top no doubt reflects a sincere belief that this type of Darwinian program will achieve dramatic results from our nation's most stubborn and intractable school districts. And the charter school solution shows promise in terms of raising student test scores in underserved urban neighborhoods. But neither a Race to the Top program nor an armada of charter schools addresses the problem exposed by both my former student and the Newsweek piece. Namely, that the education gap persists at the university level. A college degree is as vital in the 21st century as a high school diploma was in the previous hundred years. Our schools need to provide students with the tools to succeed at four-year institutions, or our society will suffer the consequences of a less competitive economy and a diminished role in global affairs.

The reason for the disparity at the university level is twofold. First, charter schools outperform their public counterparts on state standardized tests mandated under No Child Left Behind. This is a good thing. But the state tests don't measure college readiness. They test basic knowledge in a given subject area. Because charter schools depend on state test performance to obtain grants, however, the emphasis in charter high schools skews heavily toward testing at the expense of college preparedness.

Second, even though charter schools outshine their public counterparts, the gap between charters and private schools remains wide. The best private school in Los Angeles boasts average SAT scores that are higher than the best scores at a public school in the area, whether charter or traditional. And while charter schools outpace public schools on state tests, large numbers of students at charter schools still do not meet prescribed levels of proficiency in math and English.

There are all sorts of valid sociological reasons why this is so, but it doesn't matter when the goal is about closing the achievement gap. Urban charters may do better at educating their students, but they still can't compete effectively with elite private or affluent public schools. So students from these urban charters may be accepted in large numbers to universities. But they often find themselves underprepared and without the requisite social capital to successfully navigate the terrain. Or, they get to the university, then lack the funds to continue, which seems more like a cruel joke than an opportunity for higher learning.

The bottom line is this: if we're going to look at revamping education in order to close the achievement gap and secure America's place as a competitor in the world economy, we have to look deeper than charter schools, early childhood education, or any other silver bullet. We have to commit to this entire generation of students, define what we mean by academic excellence, and provide every school in every community with the tools to achieve those goals. It shouldn't matter whether a student attends a traditional public school, a charter school, or a private school. It should matter whether or not that student, when left to his or her own devices, can succeed in the 21st century economy.