The One “Fight” Muhammad Ali Did Not Win

Segregation and inequity still plague the nation’s schools

Barbershop Books
(Image: iStock.com/Pamela Moore)

In the news this weekend about the death of former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, many probably noticed a heartbreaking sentence in one of the many retrospectives on Ali’s dynamic life. The New York Times reports that in the segregated schools he’d attended, the champ had never been taught to read properly. Ali confided later in life that he had never read a book, not even the Quran.

But that was in the past, right? Today’s students of color are literate and learning. If only that were true.

According to Building a GradNation, a report written by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University released in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education, the country’s public schools face deep inequities and continued racial and economic segregation, not unlike the schools of Ali’s youth.

Here are some reasons to remember that the fight for educational equity is far from over:

  • There were 2,397 low-graduation-rate high schools in the U.S. in 2014, enrolling a total of 1.23 million students. (A low-graduation high school has a graduation rate of 67% or less.)
  • Nationwide, 33% of all non-graduates in 2014 were enrolled in low-graduation-rate high schools.
  • The number of low-graduation-rate high schools varies widely by state, from one each in Maine and West Virginia, to 203 in Florida and 276 in New York.
  • In 12 states (AK, NM, FL, AZ, GA, NV, CO, OR, NY, DE, WA, ID), low-graduation-rate high schools make up 20% or more of all high schools in the state. In Alaska and New Mexico, low-graduation-rate high schools make up 40% or more of all high schools in the state.
  • Students of color are overrepresented in large, low-graduation-rate high schools. Of the roughly 924,000 students in such schools (with 300 or more students), 65% came from low-income families, and 63% were African American or Hispanic/Latino.
  • In 15 states, African American students made up more than 40% of all students attending large, low-graduation-rate schools. Four of these states – MD, MI, TN, and VA – had African American student populations of 75% or more in these high schools.
  • Literacy rates remain low for black school children. Only 17% of black children completing the 2013 NAEP fourth grade reading assessment performed at or above proficiency.
  • Nationwide, 83% of black fourth graders read below grade level.


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