African-American Males in Policy Spotlight
Low achievement, high dropout rates a persistent problem
An African-American teenager recently told William R. Hite, Jr., the incoming schools superintendent in Philadelphia, that there are more adults working in his high school who could arrest him than could help him fill out applications for college financial aid.
That story, shared recently with an audience of educators, advocates, and state and federal policymakers, punctuated an issue of increasing concern: the persistent vulnerability of black boys.
In America’s public schools, African-American males are the least likely to read on grade level, most likely to be suspended or expelled, most likely to be referred to special education, and most likely to drop out, numerous studies have shown. This bleak portrait of black boys’ chances for future success came into sharp relief as educators and advocates met in Washington to look for solutions and capitalize on the momentum created by President Barack Obama’s establishment in July of a White House initiative on the educational achievement of African-Americans. The Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for the nation’s urban school systems, and the U.S. Department of Education co-hosted a daylong national summit last month to highlight solutions to black boys’ high dropout and suspension rates, low grades and test scores, and lackluster college-going and completion rates.
“On every indicator of progress, black males are underrepresented,” said Mr. Hite, who is wrapping up his tenure as superintendent in Maryland’s Prince George’s County schools before taking the helm of Philadelphia’s schools Oct. 1. “And on every indicator that suggests a problem, black males are overrepresented.” Mr. Hite was among more than a dozen educators and scholars who spoke at the summit.
The council commissioned a series of “solutions briefs” from prominent scholars with expertise spanning from early childhood to higher education, and drafted a “blueprint” that outlines concrete policies and action steps for school districts to take to improve outcomes for black boys. Those range from creating interventions for black boys who show early signs of academic troubles and closely monitoring the rigor of instruction and content they receive to using aggressive recruitment strategies to hire more African-American males as teachers.
The plight of African-American boys in schools has, in the last decade, sparked an impassioned group of advocates to push for solutions. For example, the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color—a group of educators working in both coed and single-gender schools—formed four years ago to promote a range of practices and strategies related to assessment, parents and community, curriculum and instruction, school culture, and other facets of school life that are designed to improve achievement for African-American and Latino males. The Council of the Great City Schools brought attention to the issue in 2010 when it issued a report documenting the grim educational attainment of black boys in urban schools and called for a White House summit.
The creation of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans earlier this summer, though, is bringing an even higher profile to the struggles of black boys, advocates say. The Congressional Black Caucus has pushed for such an effort for more than a decade, said U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, an Illinois Democrat.
“This has to be a national priority,” he said.
But with the presidential election just two months away, it’s not clear that the effort will even have much opportunity to get under way. The White House has not yet named an executive director. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the chairman of a presidential advisory commission on African-American educational opportunities, said during the Aug. 28 summit that staff members would not be selected until later this year or early next year. That timing raises questions about the initiative’s longevity if President Obama is not re-elected.
But the summit focused tightly on solutions that would not be contingent on the outcome of a presidential election. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan moderated a panel in which educators talked about strategies they are using to help black boys.
Mary Skipper, the principal of TechBoston Academy in the Dorchester section of Boston, said her school has aggressively sought out African-American male teachers to teach Advanced Placement and other high-level courses, among several other strategies.
“Having black males in front of the classroom matters,” she said. Ms. Skipper also said that simply having higher expectations for black boys is “useless” without highly effective supports for them. TechBoston uses peer tutors, small classes with multiple opportunities to do group work, and a discipline policy that uses out-of-school suspension in rare cases.
Peer mentoring is also essential, said Randolph Scott, an 18-year-old freshman at Fayetteville State University, a historically black institution in North Carolina. “To be a young black male, there is no one else who can understand me like another young black male,” he said.
Mr. Hite said breaking down school system barriers is also critical. Just six years ago, Prince George’s, where 80 percent of the enrollment is African-American, only 15 percent of the students enrolled in Advanced Placement and other high-level, college-preparatory courses were black.
“What message does that send to our young people about our expectations for them?” Mr. Hite said.
Vol. 32, Issue 03, Page 9Published in Print: September 12, 2012, as Summit Puts African-American Males in Spotlight