Listen to this article

Is there an identifiable reason — other than traditional social deficits that are resistant to improvement — for academic underperformance?

Two local community groups have initiated another conversation on the subjects of race and education in the Champaign schools, a potentially beneficial subject to discuss if addressed in a responsible manner.

Members of the local NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union chapter recently raised questions about disparities involving test scores and disciplinary infractions that divide Asian and white students from their black counterparts.

The numbers are strikingly disappointing, particularly considering the school district’s experience in trying to address educational issues as a consequence of a federal court consent decree under which it operated for years before monitoring was concluded.

While the numbers can be revealing in terms of identifying a problem, they are not necessarily clear as to causation, particularly as it relates to the racial animus that backers of the consent decree attributed to Unit 4 years ago.

The two groups are, legitimately and sincerely, concerned about what they describe as a “chasm” that separates white and Asian students from black students in terms of English and math proficiency.

They have similar complaints about the disciplinary divide between white and Asian students and black students, clearly suggesting that too many black students are cited for disciplinary violations while not enough Asian and white students are cited for misconduct.

The misconduct issue is far easier to address than educational proficiency.

In fact, unless school officials are intentionally penalizing black students while ignoring or minimizing the same or worse conduct by Asian and white students — intentional invidious discrimination — it’s not really a racial issue, but an issue of disproportionate misbehavior among some members of an identifiable group.

Kids who get in trouble in the K-12 public school system are essentially volunteers for the disciplinary process. That’s because they’re attracting negative attention and potential punishment as a consequence of their own behavior.

Frankly, it’s hard to believe that Unit 4 teachers are deliberately targeting members of some groups for misconduct sanctions while ignoring other groups. Teachers want all students in their classrooms to conduct themselves in a responsible, respectful matter and have little patience for anyone who violates the rules.

So in terms of misconduct by minority students, it appears that’s a problem best addressed by trying to correct those who misbehave, not those who don’t. This should not be a numbers game where punishment quotas are invoked or misbehavior ignored.

The education proficiency issue is much more complicated. While critics have focused their attention on the Champaign school district, as if it is an outlier, the performance gap is a national problem that, despite great effort, has so far defied repeated efforts to ameliorate.

So the question is not that there are disparities but whether there are “unwarranted” disparities — in other words, some gross failures, intentional or not, on the district’s part that make it difficult or impossible for black children to learn.

The numbers cited in a letter to the board are truly horrendous. Just 8 percent of black children in Unit 4 are proficient in English and, even worse, just 6 percent in math. The letter said for white students, those numbers are 47 and 49 percent, respectively.

Frankly, the English/math numbers for white students are an embarrassment. They are irredeemably poor for black students.

So what’s the problem? This is, at least partially, a poverty problem. Too many poor children suffer from a variety of social pathologies, including family disintegration, poverty incomes, a lack of education, alcohol and drug abuse and mental-health problems. Because black families are disproportionately lower income, it’s not a great surprise that black children disproportionately encounter greater challenges in school.

It’s the district’s job to identify those shortcomings and do the best it can to help students minimize their learning deficits. But that is obviously easier said than done. It wouldn’t be a national problem if it wasn’t.