Equity & Diversity Opinion

Black Boys

By Rosa A. Smith — October 30, 2002 7 min read
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The litmus test for 'No Child Left Behind.'

Hailed as revolutionary legislation, the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 has created great expectations. This landmark overhaul of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act—legislation that includes Title I, the federal government’s premier aid program for disadvantaged students—seeks “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”

“Education is a national priority, and for the first time federal policies will focus squarely on improving student achievement,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in January 2002, when the bill was signed into law. “For too long, many of our schools did a good job educating some of our children. With this new law, we’ll make sure we’re providing all of our children with access to a high-quality education.”

While this new legislation calls for a variety of tests and reports to measure and assure school and teacher accountability, the true measure of success in this quest for academic excellence is to guarantee that high-quality education is standard for our least-advantaged children.

Many fall into this category: those most impoverished, those suffering the effects of a history of discrimination, those least likely to graduate from high school, those most likely to be placed in special education programs—the list goes on. One group of students, however, is found at disproportionately higher rates in all of these categories: African-American boys.

Consider some data on special education enrollment patterns and other negative indicators. A recent Boston Globe national analysis found that special education is largely a boys’ club, with 1.9 million girls and 3.8 million boys nationwide classified as special education students. What the Globe report failed to mention is that compared with white children, African-American children are reportedly almost three times more likely to be designated “mentally retarded.”

African-American children are reportedly almost three times more likely than white children to be designated "mentally retarded."

According to Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project: “Many minority students—most significantly African-American boys—are overrepresented in segregated special education classrooms, especially those designed for students labeled as ‘mildly mentally retarded.’ This persistent pattern has lasted for well over 20 years.”

Nationally, approximately 12 percent of all children are assigned to special education programs. In my own state of Massachusetts, more than 25 percent of African-American boys, K-12, are in special education programs. (For Boston, the figure is 28 percent.)

It is common knowledge that once children are placed in special education classes, their chances of graduating on time and pursuing education beyond high school are greatly reduced.

“To the extent that minority students are misclassified, segregated, or inadequately served, special education can contribute to a denial of equality of opportunity, with devastating results in communities throughout the nation,” reports the Harvard Civil Rights Project.

In many large cities, fewer than 30 percent of African-American boys graduate from high school with their peers. The consequences for those young men who never graduate are disastrous and have a negative impact on their communities and, indeed, the entire country. According to a recent report from the Justice Policy Institute, young African-American men are more likely to be in jail—or otherwise involved with the courts—than to go to college. The 2000 Report on Incarcerated Youth reports that 60 percent of incarcerated youths age 18 and under are African-American, nearly four times their representation in the general population.

The racial bias that permeates the justice system helps exacerbate other factors—such as inadequate education—to criminalize black youths.

A black boy born in 1991 stands a 29 percent chance of being imprisoned at some point in his life, compared with a 16 percent chance for a Hispanic boy and a 4 percent chance for a white boy. As a result, in some states, one- quarter of black men cannot vote because of a felony conviction. Racial bias in response to crime, disparate enforcement of laws such as drug laws, the creation of criminal histories through racial profiling, racial bias in prosecution and sentencing, all help exacerbate other factors—such as inadequate education—to criminalize black youths. For example, one 1997 study of Massachusetts drug-law enforcement found that blacks were 39 times more likely to be incarcerated for a drug offense than whites. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this trend is the enormous racial disparity among those on death row.

Why does racial bias in institutions like public education and the criminal- justice system persist? One factor may be the radical underrepresentation of African-Americans in America’s political structure. There has never been an African-American president or vice president of the United States. There are currently no African-Americans in the U.S. Senate (and only four African- Americans have served there since the founding of the Republic). Fewer than 9 percent of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives are African- American. At the state level, there are no African-American governors (and only one has been elected in the history of the country). In “liberal” Massachusetts, there is one African-American state senator and only five African-American assemblymen, in a state legislature comprising 200 individuals.

Given the bleak, uphill battle African-American boys face practically from birth, dramatic improvements in their educational experience leading to elevated rates of high school graduation would provide a perfect litmus test for the No Child Left Behind Act. More than just a new system or layer of bureaucracy, this revolutionary education reform will be successful only in so far as it makes a real difference in the lives of our most at-risk children.

Years ago, Asa Hilliard III, the Fuller E. Callaway professor of urban education at Georgia State University, put it this way: “The risk for our children in school is not a risk associated with their intelligence. Our failures have nothing to do with IQ, nothing to do with race, nothing to do with language, nothing to do with style, nothing to do with the development of unique and differentiated special pedagogies, nothing to do with the children’s families.

Do we truly will to see each and every child in this nation develop to the peak of his or her capacities?"

“All of these are red herrings. The study of them may ultimately lead to some greater insight into the instructional process, but at present, they serve to distract attention from the fundamental problem facing us today. We have one and only one problem: Do we truly will to see each and every child in this nation develop to the peak of his or her capacities?”

Many causes have been explored for the catastrophic situation of African-American boys. Some believe that an important cause is the “pull” of the streets, of a destructive way of life glamorized by the media. Certainly, steps should be taken to combat this profit-driven glorification of self-destructive self-images for young African-American males.

Others look to the “push” out of school— otherwise, the great equalizer of opportunity of this country—exemplified by the effect of special education in removing from the regular classroom African- American boys who are perceived, perhaps because of cultural differences, as “misbehaving.”

Many believe that too many African-American boys and other disadvantaged children do not have the opportunity to experience quality early- childhood education. As a consequence, these students come to school poorly prepared and not ready to learn, and thus are more likely to be placed in special education classes at an early age.

Once there, students of color “are less likely than their white counterparts to receive counseling and psychological supports when they first exhibit signs of emotional turmoil, and often go without adequate services once identified,” reports the Harvard Civil Rights Project. “This lack of early intervention and support correlates highly with dropouts and suspension or expulsion, and helps explain why minority school-aged children are overrepresented in the juvenile-justice system.”

President Bush and Secretary Paige must break the prevailing silence about black boys and call it what it is: a national disgrace.

Something must be done, and much can be done, to correct an inequitable system that too easily and disproportionately leaves African-American boys behind in education and in life.

Underrepresented in government, criminalized, denied equality of education in the public schools, African-Americans in general and black boys in particular live in a society at odds with its own egalitarian ideals. The No Child Left Behind Act provides a new opportunity to reverse the ongoing negative trends and downward spiral of America’s black boys.

The outcomes for black boys form a fitting litmus test for President Bush’s and Secretary Paige’s commitment to deliver on their promise that no child will be left behind. President Bush and Secretary Paige must break the prevailing silence about black boys and call it what it is: a national disgrace. But talk is cheap. What is needed is action to ensure that black boys, like all other children, “have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high- quality education.”

Rosa A. Smith is a former superintendent of the Columbus, Ohio, public schools. She is currently the president of the Caroline and Sigmund Schott Foundation and the Schott Center for Public and Early Education, in Cambridge, Mass. Both organizations focus on equity for all children in public education.

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