Some major cities have departed from tradition and hired people who have never been educators as school superintendents, on the theory that their managerial skills will whip public school systems into shape.
During an informal discussion with black community activists at UMass Boston, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson showed the value of having a veteran educator running public schools on a day-to-day basis.
Hubie Jones, former dean of social work at Boston University, cited a study by John Hopkins University researchers that found a third grader being unable to read at grade level is an early warning the student is likely to drop out before finishing high school.
Other studies have long shown that the achievement gap begins to appear in a significant way when black students reach the fourth grade. As a group, black fourth graders fall behind. Some never catch up.
Based on her classroom experience, Johnson explained why the transition from third to fourth grade is more crucial than many parents may realize.
“For most of my career, I taught third and fourth grade,” she said. Through the third grade, students are “learning to read, then after that they are reading to learn.”
Third graders who have difficulty with any of the basics of reading in English — vocabulary, phonics, fluency or comprehension — are headed for academic trouble their next year in school. That’s because reading then becomes about acquiring knowledge.
“The fourth grade is dense in terms of information and content,” Johnson said. “There’s a big leap from third to fourth in terms of rigorous content.”
Children who falter academically in the fourth grade may not have had enough practice reading, she said, or may not have parents or other adults reading to them often enough.
“We have to figure out how we excite kids about reading early in the primary grades,” Johnson said.
Other factors in fourth-grade failure, she said, could be that students’ families lead unstable lives because they move frequently or stay in homeless shelters.
The reading problem is particularly acute for black boys. Nationally, only 12 percent read at or above grade level by the fourth grade, according to the Council of Great City Schools.
A local reflection of the syndrome: In Boston schools, just half of African American and Latino boys graduate from high school on time.
“We as black people don’t see this as a crisis. We don’t act like it’s a crisis,” said Jones, who frequently causes a stir at social gatherings by pressing individuals about what they are doing to address the dropout problem.
“It is a crisis,” Johnson said, agreeing with Jones.
The Boston schools, the superintendent suggested, could help address the dropout problem by attracting more teachers of color to serve as role models to the black and Latino students who make up 80 percent of the enrollment.
Another internal factor is the disproportionate number of black boys who have to repeat grades and, because they are older than their classmates, behave socially in ways that may appear inappropriate in middle school, Johnson said.
She added the school system is discussing the creation of an academic unit on personal identity to be taught in the ninth grade.
John Smith, coordinator of the Youth Policy Initiative, suggested that an external problem is some black boys have come to see entrepreneurialism as a substitute for education and as a route to upward mobility.
“If you sit down with them, that’s what they’ll tell you — so-and-so rapper didn’t go to college. Bill Gates didn’t go to college,” he said.
Smith later said in an interview that he corrects the boys on the educational career of the wealthy Microsoft founder. He did go to Harvard University, before dropping out to go into business. The fact he was admitted to Harvard shows he was academically well-prepared for college.
As in two previous meetings between Johnson and black community elders hosted by the Trotter Institute at UMass Boston, the session last week reached a consensus that the school system needs help from members of the community to reduce the dropout rate of black and Latino boys, and to lift the achievement levels of students of color in general.
“When we make this only about the schools, we play the blame game,” said Brian Barnes, a community liaison with the Boston schools.