When we talk about reaching students in our classrooms that come from disadvantaged backgrounds, we tend to put several groups under one umbrella. Minority students. Immigrant students. Kids from low socioeconomic households. While it’s true that all of these groups of students need a different approach, our education system is not yet doing enough to address specific needs within these at-risk groups. The initiatives that help one group tremendously may not have as large a positive impact on another, and vice versa.
Black boys are a student demographic that has been, and continues to be, misunderstood in P-20 classrooms. Misbehavior, learning styles, and social skills are often misconstrued as problems by educators when in fact, black boys are simply not receiving the most effective forms of discipline, lessons, and peer-interaction opportunities. As a result, many are slipping through the proverbial cracks and not learning at their potential levels. That lack of learning leads to higher school dropout levels, higher rates of poverty, and higher incarceration rates, too.
Perhaps there is no real connection between the academic failures of black boys and incarceration/poverty, or the eerily similar statistics associated with young Latino men. Are these young people simply bad apples, destined to fail academically and then live a life of crime? Proponents of genetic predisposition would argue that these young men never stood a chance at success and have simply accepted their lots in life. When I hear these sorts of excuses for why we aren’t best serving the black boys in our classrooms, I often think they are just too easy to be the right answers. They are all just too convenient, particularly if the people speaking them into existence come from backgrounds and experiences that are not indicative of black young men.
What if all of these theories, these so-called truths about these often-vilified children learning in our schools, are just the lazy way out? What if scoffing at a connection between a strong education and a life lived on the straight and narrow is an easy way to bypass the real issues in K-12 learning that actually put real barriers in place for black boys? What if the failures of black boys are really our faults, not theirs?
While there is always a level of personal responsibility on the part of the student to weigh in, I believe all of society’s failures when it comes to black boys are traceable back to education. While it is certainly not the fault of teachers or classroom settings, placing the blame on outside factors, like family setup or poverty, does not actually solve the problem. Schools, particularly public ones, are great equalizers for our children and youth.
When we have disadvantaged students in our midst, why aren’t we employing every tactic we’ve got into trying to combat those outside factors that are so detrimental? When we throw up our hands and say that black boys can’t be saved, or that individual students are better off serving suspensions or expulsions than sitting in our classrooms learning, we are really saying that we don’t have any power in the lives of our students. I think most rational educators would argue that is the farthest argument from the truth.
Consider this: Black students tend to have lower amounts of teachers who are certified in their degree areas. A U.S. Department of Education report found that in public high schools with at least 50 percent Black students, only 75 percent of math teachers were certified, compared to 92 percent in predominantly white schools. In English, the numbers were 59 and 68 percent, respectively and in science, they were 57 percent and 73 percent. Numbers like these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the disadvantages that take place in schools where children of color are the majority. When those children are boys, the outlook is even more dismal.
As an educational community, it’s time to stop acting like generational poverty and crime are not related - that harsh discipline in schools is not related to incarceration rates. Low rates of literacy and high rates of special education referrals among black boys aren’t coincidences. There isn’t one reason that black boys are failing on such a large scale; the factors that play into the general underachievement of the black young men in our classrooms are varied, and complicated. Like all of the intricate problems in our school systems, improving the achievement of black young men in our schools won’t happen overnight.
The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.