Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Education of African-American Males

By Jon McGill, Director of Acaemic Affairs, Baltimore Curriculum Project

“Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within.  The impact of material differences takes a while to show up but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice toward those on the lower rungs of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become even more marked. The legacy bitter indeed.”

So says historian Tony Judt in his book Ill Fares The Land.  Judt focuses on inequality of incomes, wealth accumulation and related factors as he argues that, in the United States in particular, we are seeing in the current recession only a small part of what might well be our crisis-ridden future.  He notes, to cite one example, that the wealth of the Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame, is now at a level that equals the worth, in dollars, of 40% percent of the adult population of the United States: 120 million people!  Judt believes that the situation in America has changed for the worse in the last thirty years.

One aspect of this crisis, only hinted at by Judt, is in education and, in particular, the education of African-American males.  Their overall situation in the national educational picture has also deteriorated sharply in the last thirty years, and that decline is even more precipitous given that the educational provision and achievement statistics for black males were not very good in the 1970’s to begin with. The statistical overview is alarming, or should be:

   Of 32,000 African-American boys in Maryland schools, grades ten through twelve, only 1,229 sat for AP exams (Washington Post, 5.17.09)
   According to the Task Force on the Education of African-American Males, a 2007 state research project, six out of ten school suspensions were imposed on African-American male students in 2004-2005 (this statistic remains constant through most recent data).
   African-American males make up only 5% of college students but less than one-third graduate within six years (60+% for non-Hispanic whites) (reported in New York Times)
   The Schott Foundation for Public Education noted, in 2011, that twice as many non-Hispanic whites as African-Americans were nominated for “gifted and talented programs”, four times as many whites went to math AP programs and nine times as many white students sat for Science AP exams (reported in the Baltimore Sun, 7.25.08). The Schott Foundation reported “Alarming data on the devastating reality of education for Black males across all 50 states.” (Schott Report, 2011)
   The Maryland graduation rate for African-American males is 55% versus 78 percent for white students.
   The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that three times as many Black males as white non-Hispanics in Maryland were under grade level in basic reading, and four times as many were below basic levels in Mathematics. The national statistics were considerably worse.
   Add to this the research that looks more widely at the situation for Black males and we see that this group leads statistically, relative to its percentage in the population, in homicides (victims and perpetrators), in suicides, in HIV/AIDS rates and is number one in arrests, convictions and incarcerations.  Black males are the only group currently declining in life expectancy. Indeed, while all other sectors of the population get higher life expectancy from higher education attainment, Black males exhibit no discernible life-lengthening benefits.
   Unemployment affects African-American males more than any other group; college graduation and attendance rates have declined continuously since 1977 and even “middle-class” Black males lag in GPA and test scores. One of every three Black males is raised in poverty and that rate is growing
   On any given day, 23% of Black males are in the criminal justice system. Only 18% are enrolled in higher education.

Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted research around issues of African-American education and concluded that “schools are sites where African-American males are marginalized and stigmatized.” (See Noguera’s  The Trouble With Black Boys, Jossey Bass, 2008) He further notes that Black males are often colluding in their own victimization, a stance reinforced by research conducted by the late Stanford anthropologist John Ogbu and sociologist Claude Steele, both of whom suggest that stereotyped groups, such as African-American males, often internalize the stereotypes and then act them out.
One of many troubling aspects of Noguera’s research, conducted in California, found that only a tiny percentage of African-American male students agreed with the statement “my teachers support me and want me to do well.”  Other groups were much more likely to believe this statement. Noguera also categorized those aspects of effective schools that were repeatedly found across racial, ethnic and regional boundaries.  These were:

·         clear sense of purpose/mission
·         core standards and rigorous curriculum
·         high expectations
·         commitment to all students
·         safe and orderly environments
·         strong parent partnerships
·         a problem-solving attitude
·         caring relationships between teachers and students
·         adult collegiality
·         clear accountability guidelines

 “To be effective, such initiatives must involve efforts to counter and transform cultural patterns and what some have called ‘oppositional identities ‘adopted by black males”  (Noguera, 2002)

We know the bleak statistical picture; we know what works in our schools and we also know that African-American males, and their families, want the same kind of educational success that their counterparts desire.  We know, too, that there are schools where success for all students, including African-American males, has been frequent and consistent, just as we know that single sex schools for both genders can have dramatic effects on the learning and achievement of students.
Much has been made in the last decade of a “crisis” in the education of boys.  In fact, that crisis is located in the education of boys of color much more than any other category.  Not much has changed in fifty years of educational statistics for white boys: much has changed for the worse for their Black counterparts and so what we need are new strategies that address, specifically, the education of African-American students.  We can improve the education of boys with a focus, first of all, on what boys need and, secondly, what African-American boys need.

trained teachers who understand the needs of boys and are willing to be continually  
trained to recognize how best to serve them;
a rigorous curriculum that challenges stereotypes and insists on high expectations and standards;
an insistence upon partnership with parents that have genuine meaning and consistent impact upon the school culture;
teaching methods that draw upon recent research about the learning styles of boys and of African-American boys in particular (although we should be wary of stereotyping any boys in terms of defining rigid learning styles: no research has been conducted that would allow us to maintain that any ethnic or gender grouping has any one specific learning style.  Learning is a complex activity informed only partly by cultural norms, traditions and habits.  It remains that the two greatest factors in effective learning are economic context of the student and the effectiveness of the teacher);
an intentional climate and culture that promotes the view of education as the most important element in the growth of boys and their future success;
a college preparatory culture that expects boys to move seamlessly into higher education;
a co-curricular program in the visual and performing arts as well as athletics;
a mandatory core curriculum that emphasizes skill-building, problem solving   and critical thinking.
a clear mission that all students will perform at or above state and national basic levels prior to graduation.

Two recent reports give us further reasons to refer to Black students and Black males in general as in “crisis”. The Schott Foundation For Public Education, in its annual report on public education and Black males, entitled “The Urgency of Now”, says that “it would take nearly fifty years {at current rates of progress} for Black males to secure the same high school graduation rates as their White male peers.” It is long past time says the report, for a support based “reform agenda” on this issue. There are few signs that public initiatives, whether state, federal or local, are paying the kind of attention that this issue needs. 

The second report comes from the Congressional Black Caucus and its title, “Challenge the Status Quo” suggests the contents.  Where we are now, says the report, is numbingly familiar territory.  “Many public school students are systematically disqualified access to their states’ most selective public institutions of higher education because of their addresses.”  Their address, too often, also identifies their race and their economic status, two major determinants of educational chances and success rates. As the recession begins to ease, for some, there are clear signs and persuasive data to suggest that the crisis in education, in general and for Black students in particular, is deepening.  The current “reform agenda”, soaked as it is in a “more of the same” formula: more tests, more standards, more expectations, but fewer resources, fewer trained teachers, fewer urban institutions to support inner city populations,

The crisis in education that afflicts African-American youngsters can only be resolved through a genuine belief that such students not only want to achieve but, given support, will achieve.  What they currently suffer is a preparation gap, one that almost certainly ensures an achievement gap later on. Our vision is for a school and an adult learning community that takes seriously the current deficits in education and, through intentional policies and practices, is determined to be one part of the national solution to what is, at present, a national embarrassment.