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.
Legislation is now moving through the Oklahoma legislature that would allow a 50 percent tax credit to individuals or businesses contributing to a fund that would provide scholarships for low-income kids in failing schools to go to a private school.
The heroes here are two black Democrats -- Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre and Rep. Jabar Shumate. Going against the grain of their party, and against the Oklahoma union and public-school establishments, these brave souls are championing this initiative.
The bill has already passed the Oklahoma Senate, where Eason McIntyre co-sponsored it with a conservative Republican. It's now waiting to be scheduled for a vote in the House.
Tax credits are evolving as the preferred mechanism for school choice because they channel private funds and are less exposed to legal challenge. And, structured as the Oklahoma initiative is, the funds are targeted to low-income kids in failing schools.
The great irony is that, politically, it has been Democrats who have opposed school choice and, despite disproportionate education problems in the black community, black political leadership has been generally opposed, as has the NAACP.
Both Democratic presidential candidates, as they heap criticism on No Child Left Behind, oppose helping get education options into the hands of parents. Barack Obama's two daughters attend private school in Chicago, and Hillary Rodham Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, attended the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington.
It is the simplest logic that an effort to solve a problem cannot be deemed sincere if all options for addressing that problem are not pursued.
Complex social realities, starting with family, create special challenges in getting many black kids, and children of other minorities, educated. We owe it to them to offer options, including private- and church-school alternatives to public schools.
Kudos to Judy Eason McIntyre and Jabar Shumate. We need more like them.