I graduated from a public high school in Baton Rouge, La., that, according to GreatSchools.com, is 98 percent African-American and where 90 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. As a student there, I became aware that Louisiana State University required physics for admission. Though physics was not required for me to graduate, I decided to take the class because I wanted to expand my postsecondary options to more competitive universities. My school offered only a half year of physics, so I was not certain that I met LSU's admissions criteria, but my application was accepted. Eventually, I enrolled in LSU and graduated four years later.
During my sophomore year of college, I returned to my high school to visit my former physics teacher, Mr. Jacobs. "Toldson man!" Mr. Jacobs, who is white, exclaimed, "I think our principal (who eliminated physics from the curriculum) forgot what color he is." Mr. Jacobs believed that the principal, as a black man, would certainly understand the value of a rigorous curriculum at a predominately black high school.
I respected our principal for overseeing the transformation of the school after we had two shootings and one fatal stabbing during my sophomore year there. However, his myopic view of his responsibilities limited the ambitions of students like me. If I were two years younger, the man who made my school safer might also have prevented me from attending my state's flagship university.
Despite the challenges of my high school, many difference makers in my environment helped me to beat the odds. In addition to Mr. Jacobs, who fought tirelessly to get physics and trigonometry in our curriculum, Ms. Robinson revived our school's newspaper and encouraged me and other students to write. Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Robinson represent millions of innovators who are not satisfied with the status quo in education, and have used their positions to make a difference. However, too often our public school system seems refractory to change.
Today, many schools in the United States still do not offer classes that are necessary for postsecondary success. According to the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection, nationwide only 50 percent of high schools offer calculus and 63 percent offer physics, with even lower access for students of color.
Recently, I had a conversation with Dr. Roslyn Clark-Artis, president of Florida Memorial University. She said she encounters numerous students who have not had the benefit of advanced math courses because they are not offered in their high schools. There also are opportunity gaps in gifted education, Advanced Placement courses and SAT/ACT preparation. Racial disparities in school discipline and teacher qualifications further marginalize learning opportunities. FMU and other universities have responded to these challenges by creating bridge programs for high school students, but, as a nation, we have to do a better job of giving all students the opportunities they need to prepare for college.
Education is vital to the economic strength of communities and our progress as a nation. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The proposed federal budget for 2015 provides a symbolic moment to recommit to the principles of Title I, with $300 million in new money for the Race to the Top-Equity & Opportunity program that will address the needs of disadvantaged poor and minority students, students with disabilities and English learners.
As a researcher who has published numerous articles and reports on academic success among black males, I understand the importance of leveraging public revenue to expand educational opportunities to all. Race to the Top can support systemic changes at the state and local levels, and allow scalable strategies to emerge from innovative education leaders. The Race to the Top competition can reveal programs that expand curriculum offerings to schoolchildren, create pathways to bring the most experienced teachers to high-poverty schools, establish cooperative agreements between high schools and universities (especially minority-serving institutions), and improve school climate and cultural sensitivity.
In 2009, Congress and President Barack Obama made a commitment to establish Race to the Top as the primary mechanism to motivate innovation in education and learn what works. In 2015, we have an opportunity to cultivate a new round of strategies to resolve the most pressing educational needs of our time. Despite many differences in educational philosophies, we all can agree that the race to educational opportunity for all is far from over, and it is a race that the nation cannot afford to lose.
Ivory A. Toldson is deputy director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.