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COLUMN LEFT/ RICHARD ROTHSTEIN : Employers, Not Schools, Fail Black Youth : Even in L.A., they're scoring higher--just as jobs disappear.

April 18, 1993|RICHARD ROTHSTEIN | Richard Rothstein is a Los Angeles-based research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

Incorporation of African-American youth into the middle class is a three-part challenge. First, our schools must offer young people the skills they need for productive employment. Second, young people must apply themselves to absorb what the schools offer. And third, industry and government must offer jobs and decent wages to students who succeed in school.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, public schools and black students have been doing their part. But this process is nullified by our failure to provide jobs and by our cowardly tendency to blame the schools or the young people themselves for their undeserved unemployment. The reform group LEARN's assertion, for example, that schools don't "prepare students for further education and the job market" obscures the real cause of youth unemployment. For citizenship and culture, better education is needed, but given today's dearth of economic opportunity, schools now overeducate youth for what the job market requires.

A "blame the schools" mentality also creates a barrier in public understanding of minority youths' desperation. The image of young black males--purposeless, violent and illiterate--is based on selective, sensational and irresponsible reporting. In truth, most of these young men are frustrated; better-educated than ever, they find economic security further from their grasp.

In 1990, 76% of America's young black men had completed high school, up from 66% in 1980 and 55% in 1970. How does this square with publicized reports that nearly 40% of 10th-graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District "drop out"? In reality, these "dropout" statistics don't account for some students who leave LAUSD to enroll in other districts or adult schools or those who test for their equivalency certificates.

African-Americans' academic achievement rate also is up. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that in 1988, 17-year-old blacks had average reading scores of 274, while whites averaged 294. (A 300 reflects ability to summarize relatively complicated information; a 250 reflects ability to search for information, interrelate ideas and make generalizations.) This 20-point gap was 51 points in 1980 and 53 points in 1971. While the gap narrowed, average scores for all students increased (from 285 to 290). Black students also gained in mathematics.

From 1976 (when scores were first reported by race and ethnicity) to 1992, blacks' SAT scores went from 686 to 737, narrowing another gap with whites. (In California, blacks' gains were even greater, from 684 to 750.) The number of advanced-placement tests passed in L.A. schools more than doubled from 1984 to 1990, from 11 per 100 high school seniors to 23. Since this occurred while LAUSD enrollment was going from 80% to 86% minority, it's reasonable to infer that black students shared in this achievement.

More young blacks are enrolled in college: 33% in 1990, up from 26% in 1970. But average wages of college graduates are now in decline, dropping 12% from $19 an hour in 1973 to $16.70 in 1991. There appears to be a market glut of college grads: 20% are either unemployed or in jobs that don't require college degrees. For example, 644,000 college graduates are working as retail sales persons.

Among high school graduates without the means to go to college, skills are in greater surplus and prospects are bleaker. Average wages of high school grads sank from $13.50 in 1973 to $10.70 in 1991.

While blacks have narrowed the academic gap, the racial wage gap has exploded. In 1973, white high school graduates earned 10% more than black grads; by 1989, the gap was 17% percent. In 1973, white college graduates earned 4% more than blacks; by 1989, the gap was 16%.

Black youths are doing better at preparing themselves for a skilled work force. But employers have been more interested in moving skilled as well as unskilled jobs offshore than in providing employment for qualified workers at home. Unemployment is higher than it was at the depths of the recession two years ago.

Los Angeles alone can't buck national trends. Breaking up the school district, decentralizing, restructuring or privatizing schools will not create jobs for high school grads. Civic leaders devoted to these crusades could use their energy more productively to mobilize support for President Clinton's languishing economic stimulus package. At the least, they should support tax and budgetary policies to prevent the imminent elimination of 31,000 government jobs in California, cutbacks that will disproportionately harm minority graduates, who traditionally have had greater access to public employment than to private. And they should stop blaming the victims, pretending that if only minority youths were even better prepared, good jobs would miraculously appear.

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