How to Make the American Education System Work for Black Boys

Black boys in classThe educational failure of Black boys is one of the most devastating problems facing American society, but a coalition of researchers wants the world to know that the solutions to this problem are within our grasp — as long as the nation summons the will to implement them.

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, seven university-based research centers that focus on Black boys came together to produce a comprehensive study on the obstacles these boys face in school and what the nation needs to do to turn around their educational outcomes. The institutions involved are Morehouse College, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UCLA, San Diego State, the University of Texas at Austin and Ohio State.

Called Advancing the Success of Boys and Men of Color in Education, the report begins by stating the case for why action is immediately needed to fix our nation’s schools when it comes to educating Black and Hispanic boys. Though these numbers have been floating around in reports and studies for years, they still have the power to stun every time you see them: In 2013, just 14 percent of Black boys were proficient in reading in fourth grade and 12 percent in eighth grade, compared to 41 percent of white boys in fourth grade reading and 38 percent of white boys in eighth grade reading, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. Hispanic boys were at 18 percent in fourth grade reading and 17 percent in eighth grade reading, while Asian boys were at 47 percent in fourth grade reading and 43 percent in eighth grade reading.

While none of the numbers for any of the racial groups are particularly impressive, the numbers for Black and Hispanic boys are a flashing red light signaling impending doom. As could be expected, the high school graduation rates lag severely for Black and Hispanic boys: Nationally, the four-year graduation rate for Black males is 52 percent and for Hispanic males it’s 58 percent, compared to 78 percent for white males. But even those numbers mask problems in places like Washington, D.C., where the numbers are 38 percent for Black males and 46 percent for Hispanic males, or New York City, where the four-year graduation rate for both Black and Hispanic males is 37 percent.

The college graduation rates also lag for Black and Hispanic males — at four-year colleges, only 33.2 percent of Black males and 44.8 of Hispanic males earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 57.1 percent for whites and 64.2 percent for Asians.

One of the most probing and subversive insights in the report is its statement that “every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets.”

“Thus, the existing educational policies and practices that routinely fail to produce positive results for boys and men of color demand scrutiny,” the report states.

In other words, it’s not by accident that Black boys are doing so poorly in American schools, the university researchers are saying. If the system is failing them, it’s because the system is designed to fail them.

The document is a groundbreaking coalescing of resources, bringing together leaders in the field — from such rigorous centers as the Morehouse Research Institute, Penn’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education and UCLA’s Black Male Institute — to lay out exactly how the nation can turn around a problem that for years has been portrayed by media reports as intractable and hopeless.

The researchers acknowledge that their effort is a follow-up to Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which challenged the nation’s schools, foundations and corporations to come together to improve outcomes and life chances for Black boys.

“Although often characterized as an at-risk population, boys and men of color possess the intellectual capacity to excel in PreK-12 schools and postsecondary contexts when educational policies and practices support their success,” the researchers state.

The report’s primary focus is a series of recommendations that, if implemented, would drastically improve the lives of Black boys. Among the boldest recommendations are these:

* Given the importance of early grade level reading proficiency, schools should provide specific interventions aimed toward students who are not demonstrating reading proficiency by third grade — including supplemental learning opportunities with an intense literacy focus in the form of after-school programs, summer school, literacy sessions or Saturday academies.

* Since Black and Latino males are overrepresented in the number of suspensions and expulsions in preK-12 and underrepresented in Gifted and Talented and other accelerated learning programs, school districts should be required to adopt data systems that track the classrooms, teachers and schools where levels of suspension are significantly higher.

* Colleges of education across the nation should do more to attract Black males into teaching so that young Black and Hispanic students have access to a critical mass of men of color educators as positive male role models and mentors to better understand their own identities and to develop plans for college enrollment.

* Since preK-12 educators tend to be disproportionately white and female who often struggle to connect with young boys of color personally and pedagogically, a professional development infrastructure needs to be developed to train teachers to work more effectively with boys of color. Districts and departments of education should be mandated to develop sustained professional development structures that assist practitioners in developing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to effectively work with boys of color.

* Since students who engage in college preparatory coursework are more likely to enroll in college, navigate the transition to college more smoothly and are better prepared for academic expectations in college, high schools need to do more to encourage historically underrepresented students (particularly male students of color) to enroll in these courses.

As the report was released to the public, the same issues were the subject of a study released this week by education advocates concerning the educational failures of Black and Hispanic students at 90 schools in New York City. The study, released by a group called Families for Excellent Schools, concluded that at least 90 public schools in the city failed to have a single Black or Hispanic student pass the state standardized tests in 2013.

“This is shameful! New York’s Black and Hispanic communities should be furious. Our children are not being educated. It’s just that simple,” said Kenneth Campbell, president of an advocacy group called Black Alliance for Educational Options, which supports increasing school vouchers and charter schools. “Having zero Black or Hispanic children pass state tests in 90 schools in one city is deplorable. How could we have let this happen?”


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