Two recent studies show the complexity in assessing educational progress in our nation.
One, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation's education "report card," reported improvement in writing skills of eighth- and 12th-graders by statistically significant amounts over scores the last time these skills were examined, in 2002.
More sobering was a report on high-school graduation rates, sponsored jointly by America's Promise Alliance -- founded by Colin Powell and chaired by his wife, Alma -- and the Gates Foundation.
According to this study, 70 percent of high-school students nationwide are graduating on time. But over 1 million kids are dropping out annually and 17 of the nation's largest cities have graduation rates below 50 percent.
The gaps in dropout rates in suburban schools compared to those in urban schools and between various ethnic groups are huge.
Suburban schools have 75 percent graduation rates compared to 60 percent of those in urban districts. Graduation rates among whites and Asians exceed 75 percent, but among Hispanics it's 58 percent, blacks 53 percent and American Indians 49 percent.
It is one thing to clamp down on the rigor of instruction in schools and measure progress through testing, as No Child Left Behind mandates. But this is not going to keep a child in school.
The idea of post-racial or post-ethnic America may provide a sweet melody for a political campaign, but this has little to do with our realities, as this data shows.
The economic prospects for any child are determined overwhelmingly by the education that child gets. And the picture is clear, given existing realities, that without dramatic change, ethnic economic gaps will persist into the foreseeable future.
Sad is how few leaders we have who are willing to be courageous in pushing for every possible way to address this huge problem.
However, in a recent speaking engagement at the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs, I discovered a couple of real heroes that we can look to as role models in this struggle.
No Child Left Behind allows parents to move their child to a performing district public school if the child's school is failing and does not improve for three consecutive years. But this provision is effectively meaningless because rarely is there an available public-school alternative.
The Tulsa and Oklahoma City School Districts have 7,000 students in such failing schools.
Graduation rates in Oklahoma City and Tulsa are 47.5 percent and 50.6 percent, respectively.