Recent studies of black boys and academic achievement have caught my attention. First was Yes We Can, The Schott Foundation 50 State Report on Black Males and Public Education. Then there was “A Call for Change,” a report by the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy group for urban public schools. Lastly, Columbia University researchers published “Stuck in the Middle,” which documents the existence of an achievement gap between students who attend New York City middle schools and those who do not. While this last study was not about black males per se, it is applicable because student enrollment in NYC public schools is 80%-90% minority.
The Schott Foundation reported that the national high school graduation rate for black males is an abysmal 47%. The report challenges educators and policy makers to change the academic and life trajectory for black males. Geoffrey Canada describes the situation presented by the report as “nightmarish.” Canada and the Schott Foundation urge responsible adults to implement policies that will change the trajectories of black boys by enhancing learning environments and increasing achievement.
The issuers of A Call for Change use equally dire language. The Council of the Great City Schools writes that the report’s “jaw-dropping data” will “spark a new sense of national urgency.” The report makes the startling assertion that poor white 4th grade boys perform at the same academic level as non-poor black 8th grade boys. That caused me to scratch my head rather than drop my jaw. Was the Council inferring that black boys are academically inferior to white boys – of any age or income level?
Writing in Education Next, Columbia University researchers Rockoff and Lockwood reveal the existence of an achievement gap affecting NYC middle school students. Middle school is defined as grades 5-8 or 6-8. While controlling for poverty and race, Rockoff and Lockwood found that students do comparatively well in elementary school but that achievement begins to diverge once the same student cohort enters middle school. Student achievement decreases in middle school years for all students but that decline seems accelerated among those attending middle school. Those students with lower initial levels of achievement continue to do poorly in middle school.
The researchers write, “[m]iddle schools may not only hurt student achievement in the short term but [may] set students up for unnecessary longer-term disadvantages.” For many, the slide in achievement may persist into high school. If true, this becomes even more problematic for black boys. My own experiences inform me that high school dropout begins in middle school. But I always assumed it was due to inadequate preparation.
Rockoff and Lockwood identify some factors that may explain the academic slide among middle school students. Students who enter directly from an elementary school are thrust into a large, diverse mix of students, move from class to class every 45 minutes, and sit in larger classes. They surmise that middle school pupils may: (a) be harder to educate in large groups; (b) possess undermining personality traits including low self-esteem, negativity, and poor judgment; and (c) have fewer educational resources at home. These factors may have an exaggerated effect in black boys.
In another Education Next article, David Chura, a 10-year veteran educator at NYS youth jails, wrote that the mostly poor and minority adolescent boys he taught did not lack ability. He observed that although lacking focus they had an “aptitude for learning.” Chura also noted that his students had been “beaten down by negative experiences” in school. He may have found the source of the achievement gap that confounds educators. Those “negative experiences,” which impinge on a child’s aptitude for learning, begin at home and are compounded by early in-school experiences.
None of these reports and articles discusses the success factors for high achieving black boys. Instead, the authors focus on low achievers and the variables that contribute to their dysfunction. For decades, policy makers have studied black underachievers; we should now examine their higher achieving brethren and figure out how to replicate their successes. Black achievement can only come when we look to ourselves and our community of achievers.
By working from within, we eliminate any sense of inferiority that arises from racial and ethnic comparisons. It is unhelpful to tell black eight graders that white fourth graders are better readers. That kind of comparison will not inspire a child to work harder. Giving him, however, the keys to success that unlocked the doors to unimaginable opportunities for other similarly situated black boys will incite them to success.
Poor parents have an obligation to lift themselves and their children out of stultifying poverty. And if they can’t lift themselves, they should, at least, position their children on their shoulders so that they may reach higher. These parents must demand that the public school system respond to the educational needs of their children. Children, black boys especially, need guidance from parents who will fight, push, prod and pull them onto the path of academic and economic success. Nothing else will suffice.
We like, David Chura, must take note of one young man’s all too familiar epiphany, “here I am locked up in jail, but finally going to school.” Far too many young black men find scholastic success in our reform schools, jails and prisons. For me, the issue is not the achievement gap, high school dropout rates or even college matriculation. The issue is developing a knowledge-based education that encourages lifelong learning. Our efforts to resolve the perplexing problem of black male academic underachievement must counteract those early in-home and in-school experiences that dull their academic potential. America cannot afford to lose another generation of black boys to scholastic failure.
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