Equity & Diversity

For Boys of Color, ‘Complex Web’ of Obstacles Hinder Success

By Corey Mitchell — May 17, 2016 6 min read
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Black, Latino, and Native American males face a complex web of circumstances that can explain why they are overrepresented among students with low grades, low test scores, and a high incidence of disciplinary problems, according to a new report from the Urban Institute.

Relying heavily on student interviews, the report, titled “Aiming Higher,” paints a portrait of a socially vulnerable group of students facing a systemic predicament, beginning at birth, that puts them at “risk for underperformance in school and life.”

“It’s like being ensnared in a web, and you just can’t quite get out of it,” said Ronald F. Ferguson, the director of Harvard University’s Achievement Gap Initiative and the author of the report, which was released last week by the Urban Institute.

“It’s not that you can’t escape,” he continued. “A young person with lots of family support, resources, and determination can avoid a lot of that, ... but this is very structural and systemic.”

Ronald F. Ferguson, the director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, examined the systemic and structural barriers that make school success harder to achieve for black, Latino, and Native American boys.

While acknowledging there have always been males of color who excel academically, Ferguson makes the case that black, Latino, and Native American students face political, sociological, psychological, and economic barriers to success that cut across socioeconomic status.

Chief among those barriers, according to Ferguson:

  • They arrive at kindergarten academically less prepared than white males.
  • They are at higher risk for out-of-school suspensions because of disparate discipline policies.
  • They are often stuck in schools where access to orderly, well-functioning classrooms is scarce.
  • They interact with teachers and administrators who often issue judgments about them based on negative race and gender stereotypes.
  • They encounter immense peer pressure that leads them to misbehave and hold back from doing their best in class.

Combined, those factors create what Ferguson calls “the predicament.” Dismantling it will require an empathetic response in schools and an investment of public and private resources to create conditions in homes, schools, and communities that enable achievement rather than stifling it, he said.

“This is not about blame,” Ferguson said. “The conversation we need to have is about the opportunities we have to help these young people reach their potential.”

The Urban Institute commissioned the report to complement work in support of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which he launched in 2014 to address the needs of nonwhite boys and young men.

As more school districts have signed on to initiatives meant to support the needs of boys of color, some critics have been arguing that programs designed solely to help nonwhite boys unfairly exclude nonwhite girls who, by many measures, experience the same problems.

Excluding Some Students?

The American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital released a report this month that questions the legality of the District of Columbia school district’s Empowering Males of Color initiative. The study, “Leaving Girls Behind,” argues that the program violates federal laws designed to bar gender discrimination.

In the District of Columbia school system, white students far outperform black and Latino students, male and female, on standardized tests. The ACLU report contends that it is unfair for the school system to paint the problem as simply a gender issue instead of a racial one.

“Girls and women of color absolutely need the same kind of concentrated focus that boys and men of color have received, but the focus has to be on their gender-specific needs, experiences, and issues,” said Shaun Harper, a University of Pennsylvania professor and the executive director of the school’s Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education.

For instance, black boys and girls are suspended and expelled from schools at disproportionately high rates when compared to their peers, but often for different reasons, Harper said. While black males are often perceived as threatening or dangerous, black female students are often disciplined for “attitude” or dress code violations.

“A one-size-fits-all kind of approach doesn’t work,” Harper said.

The same statement may apply to the examination of challenges that Native American boys and young men face, said Erik Stegman, the executive director of the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. While praising Ferguson’s report, Stegman argues that the findings won’t be as useful for Native American youth advocates.

“The cultural context is pretty dramatically different when you’re talking urban Native American boys versus those on the reservation,” Stegman said. “Sometimes these recommendations don’t drill down enough to be useful to our community.”

Ferguson acknowledges in the report that black males receive the most attention partly because they have been the focus of more research.

With Generation Indigenous, a $1 billion initiative aimed at overcoming barriers to success for Native American youths, the White House has devoted more resources to programs that support Native youths and improving education in Indian Country.

In response to criticism about the limited focus of My Brother’s Keeper, the Obama administration created a Working Group on Challenges and Opportunities for Women and Girls of Color, an outgrowth of the White House Council on Women and Girls. The effort has secured $100 million in support, which will help fund research on the issues that girls and young women of color face.

Searching for Solutions

Ferguson’s report outlines pathways to achieve three goals of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative—that all children enter school ready to learn, that they read at grade level by the end of 3rd grade, and that they graduate from high school.

The report recommends: helping parents prepare children for formal schooling by focusing on children’s early cognitive development, training educators who work with males of color to recognize their biases and check them at the door, and mobilizing community support and resources behind efforts such as My Brother’s Keeper to nurture the students.

“In every interaction that we have with boys and young men of color, we want to remove the counterproductive, less healthy aspects,” Fergusonsaid. That includes interaction with their peers, he said.

In surveys that Ferguson conducted for the report, students said they understood what is expected of them in school. But they self-reported that they often misbehave because they fear the social consequences of not conforming to negative behavior.

“It’s as if there’s a collective script,” Ferguson said. “Everybody is handed their part and is responsible for learning it, even if they don’t like it.”

Harper, the University of Pennsylvania researcher, led a group of researchers who interviewed hundreds of high-achieving students from New York City schools for a report called “Succeeding in the City,” to gain insights on how to improve the academic performance of young black and Latino men.

Pairing work that examines success stories with those reports such as Ferguson’s that examine the pervasive predicaments that boys and young men of color face is key to helping students and their advocates find paths to success in K-12 and beyond, Harper said.

“It’s about finding opportunities for schools and communities ... to do more to improve rates of success among young men of color,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2016 edition of Education Week as ‘Complex Web’ of Obstacles Hinders Success for Boys of Color


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