Ian Rowe is CEO of Public Prep, a network of single-sex elementary and middle public schools in New York City. Public Prep enrolls nearly 2,000 students in grades PreK-8. Ian has held a number of roles, from directing a public service initiative at the White House, to serving as a senior executive at MTV, to working as leadership at Teach For America and the Gates Foundation. Ian will be writing about how family structure impacts education outcomes, what that means for schooling, and what schools can do.
If you are a young man of color, it is hard not to be demoralized by what seem to be incessant stories of unarmed, black men killed by police. Perhaps most prominent of these is the story of Michael Brown, the eighteen-year-old, black male robbery suspect who in 2014 was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Although the official DOJ investigation concluded that the evidence did not support an indictment of the police officer, Brown’s death has come to symbolize for many the ultimate exercise of racist state power.
Michael Brown’s life and death are an example of the tragedy that befalls too many young black men. Yet there is a story of a young man with the same name, but for two inverted vowels (note the “ea” instead of “ae”), which is a very different one. This seventeen-year-old Micheal Brown of Houston, Texas, applied to more than twenty colleges and universities, and in 2018 received full scholarships to all of them. If you want to share in a moment of utter joy, watch Micheal’s infectious response to receiving the good news of acceptance to Stanford University.
The tale of Micheal Brown from Houston is mostly one of triumph: His accomplishments are indicative not only of his educational attainment, but also those of more than one million black men enrolled in college today. But in its own way the story is also tragic because the dominant narrative of his Ferguson counterpart keeps this Micheal’s story hidden from view, virtually invisible to those who might benefit from knowing his inspirational achievement.
Yet could it be there are many young black men like Micheal Brown of Houston, on the path to leading prosperous lives, but we just don’t know it? The dual—and dueling—realities of the two means that neither their skin color nor their gender is necessarily the primary, or even defining, characteristic that determined their respective fates.
Consider research recently published by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies: “Black Men, Making It in America: The Engines of Economic Success for Black Men in America.” According to the study’s analysis of Census data, 57 percent of black men have made it into the middle class or higher as adults today, up from 38 percent in 1960. And the share of black men who are poor has fallen from 41 percent in 1960 to 18 percent in 2016. The research reveals that a number of factors—education, work, marriage, church participation, military service, and a sense of personal agency—are all highly correlated to black male economic success in America.
More broadly among young women and men of all races, there is a sequence of personal life decisions that gives the greatest probability to enter the middle class or beyond. According to new research, 94 percent of Millennials from lower-income backgrounds manage to avoid poverty if they followed these three steps: completing at least a high school degree, working full-time, and marrying before bearing children—in that order. The “Success Sequence,” so named by Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, has been described as the path into adulthood that is most likely to lead toward economic success and away from poverty.
Ensuring young people understand different pathways to success is a powerful and necessary counter-narrative, especially in historically disempowered communities. Young people must know that they have power in their individual choices, and that those decisions can shape their destiny despite structural barriers associated with race, class, and poverty. For those of us in education, we need to explicitly communicate to young black men—and children of all races and genders—the importance of, and likely rewards, that come from sequentially completing an education, working full-time, and forging a strong and stable family life (which usually entails marriage before the baby carriage).
Since 2010, I have run a network of PreK-8 public charter schools in the heart of the South Bronx and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We know that our alumni are entering a world in which factors related to race, class, or gender will force them to confront extraordinary challenges while simultaneously being exposed to extraordinary opportunities. The question is, beyond academic preparation, what will make the difference in whether Public Prep scholars succumb to challenge or thrive on opportunity?
I believe that much of the answer rests on our alumni having the personal agency—the power to control your own destiny—to make life decisions, particularly related to the sequence of those choices. That is why we have created a course for our exiting 8th graders called “Pathways to Power,” which incorporates educating our students about the data related to the Success Sequence. We do this because we feel that it’s our responsibility to share this information with our scholars so that they can make fully informed decisions about their lives as they move into adulthood.
Both Michael and Micheal Brown were born black boys. Each of their respective life outcomes is a symbol of a real segment of black male life in America. That is why it is important that black boys and young people of all races know the triumph and tragedy of both Micheal Brown and Michael Brown. But today the lopsided awareness of one tragic story deprives our children of an inspiring living example that can affirm the belief that they can have a chance at being captains of their own lives.
Educators can change this. Our students’ parents want and need education leaders to be the adults in the room, not silenced by political correctness or fear of accusations that we are moralizing. They want us to talk openly to our students about the best path to achieve their dreams.
By having the courage to do so, we would fulfill our most cherished responsibility to our parents: to educate their children.
Let us live up to the highest of their expectations.
If not us, who will?
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.