Education Commentary

Fighting the Epidemic of Failure

By Spencer H. Holland — September 01, 1989 6 min read

An epidemic of academic failure is overwhelming black, inner-city male students. A staggering percentage of them drop out of school. Many who do graduate are barely literate and destined for economic failure. For the sake of these young men, and for society as a whole, we need immediate and radical actions. We should begin by creating experimental classes of all boys, taught by male teachers, from kindergarten through 3rd grade.

The most common reasons cited for the academic and social failings of young black males are that such boys come from poor, single-parent, female-headed households; that they have no positive male role models; and that they view the educational setting as feminine and not relevant to their daily lives.

To override these aspects of the cultural environment outside the classroom, we must develop new creative models inside the school. At present, the early elementary school environment may appear no different to the young black male than his preschool and outside school surroundings. The principals, assistant principals, teachers, and counselors in elementary schools are frequently all female. Most boys do not have male teachers until the later elementary grades or junior high school, and for inner-city boys this is much, much too late. It is well documented in educational research that many students—especially boys—who fail to complete high school drop out psychologically and emotionally by the 3rd or 4th grade. And inner-city, black male children drop out or leave at truly alarming rates.

No matter how nurturing, loving, and kind women may be, they just do not constitute appropriate role models for these boys because the behavior associated with them is always viewed as feminine. Unfortunately, the only consistently available male role models are men and boys who, in most instances, have already rejected educational achievement as inappropriate. Thus the cycle continues.

The situation, however, is quite different for young inner-city black girls. Generally, they enter school more prepared than boys for the activities that characterize early schooling. In addition, inner-city black girls are exposed very early in their academic careers to consistent and literate black females who offer positive role models. Equally important, many of the instructional strategies used in early childhood and primary education require children to copy the behavior of the teacher.

For minority males, early intervention and prevention are the keys to doable action plans that can turn the tide of academic failure. Creating all-male kindergarten-through-3rd grade classes taught by male teachers would provide young black boys with consistent, positive, and literate black role models in the classroom. It also would help overcome many of the negative attitudes toward education that currently hamper black boys’ academic achievement.

Since I first proposed this idea in print two years ago (“A Radical Approach to Educating Young Black Males,” Education Week, March 25, 1987), only one school system that I know of has tried what I recommended. In 1987, the Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools instituted a program, called “At Risk All Male Classes,” in one inner-city elementary school. The program created an all-male kindergarten class taught by a black male teacher, and an all-male 1st grade class taught by a white male teacher. Parents volunteered their children for participation.

The results were truly gratifying. On all academic and behavioral measures assessed, the boys in these two classes outperformed their male peers in a control group that had remained in traditional coeducational classes taught by females. Unfortunately, this innovative approach to the primary education of inner-city boys was stopped when an anonymous complaint was registered with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint argued that the program discriminated against girls.

Pressure from a number of parents, however, led to the program being reinstated in the fall of 1988 with just one class of kindergarten boys taught by a black male teacher. But the intervention promptly ended this class as well. The complaint and the action were misguided. For little girls, academic success does not appear to be predicated on the gender of the teacher the way it is for little boys, particularly boys being raised by a single mother.

Although the Dade County experiment was unique, at least one other effort is underway to give inner-city boys positive male role models in the classroom. In the fall of 1988, a new program was implemented at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. Because the 1st grade class that entered school last fall will graduate from high school in the year 2000, we called the program PROJECT 2000.

Of the 37 members on the staff of the PROJECT 2000 school, only the principal and four of the teachers are male. All but a few of the 47 boys in the 93-student 1st grade class came from single-parent, female-headed households. Therefore, our primary objective was to expose these boys to alternative male role models in both the academic and social activities in their classroom. In addition, we hoped to provide opportunities for positive one-on-one interaction with males in an educational environment.

Under the auspices of the local chapter of Concerned Black Men, Inc., a community service organization, male volunteers from the corporate world and Howard University’s Undergraduate Student Assembly were recruited and trained to serve as teaching assistants to the school’s four 1st grade teachers. In addition to providing classroom assistance, volunteers financed and accompanied the children on two major field trips: a tour of Washington, D.C., and a tour of the Howard University campus, where they ate lunch and attended a performance at the university’s children’s theater. The response of the students, faculty, staff, and volunteers to this pilot-year effort has been excellent. At the beginning of this project, the teachers and principal targeted, for special attention, several boys who were having academic and/or behavioral difficulty. All of these boys have made an incredible turnaround. Because of the improvement in their attitude toward school and in their general behavior at school, these targeted youngsters were treated to a trip to see a professional basketball game at the Washington Capitol Center. In addition, two of these boys represented their class and were recognized as its most improved students at CBM’s annual Youth Recognition and Awards Banquet in June 1989. We will continue to work with these children next year when they move on to 2nd grade, and we will expand our efforts by assigning volunteers to the kindergarten and 1st grade classes. We are doing this at the request of some of the teachers in these grades. Concerned Black Men, Inc. is committed to following the class of 2000 until it graduates from high school. We will provide these students with a wide variety of opportunities for successful involvement with the community-at-large and seek funding to ensure that they can obtain the postsecondary training of their choice.

If the black male is to be removed from the “endangered species” list, educational reform in urban school systems must be radical and focused on the educational needs of black male children during the primary years. School districts should seek out community organizations such as Concerned Black Men, Inc., that can provide positive male role models for inner-city boys. And programs such as Dade County’s must be given time to prove themselves. Misguided bureaucratic barriers erected by the EEOC or other agencies in the name of equality must be fought with the fervor that accompanied the civil-rights movement of the 1960’s.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1981 edition of Education Week as Fighting the Epidemic of Failure