Opinion
Equity & Diversity Commentary

How We Can Help Black Female Students

By Fatima Goss Graves — November 12, 2014 5 min read

What happens when an entire population has been largely absent from the discourse around public education? Unfortunately, this has happened to girls of color, and it has fueled assumptions that they are doing just fine and has allowed the significant barriers they face in school and life to go unaddressed.

Unlocking Opportunity for African-American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity,” a new report from the National Women’s Law Center (where I work) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, takes a comprehensive look at the many impediments to African-American girls’ educational success and the poor educational and economic outcomes many girls face.

The findings are disturbing: Because of pervasive, systemic barriers in education rooted in racial and gender bias and stereotypes, African-American girls are faring worse than the national average for girls on almost every measure of academic achievement.

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In sharp contrast to reports of the academic success of girls overall, African-American girls are more likely than any other group of young females to receive poor grades and be held back a year and are less likely than any other group of girls, except Native American girls, to complete high school on time. The report also documents the close connection between these school outcomes and bleak economic futures for African-American students as a whole.

Of the many roadblocks to success that the report examines, the disparities in school discipline stand out. Although the numbers of African-American girls traveling along the school-to-prison pipeline have been growing, their experiences have only recently been documented. We now know that 12 percent of African-American female students are suspended from school, a rate six times higher than that of white girls. African-American girls are routinely punished more harshly than white girls for the same offenses, and are often suspended from school for minor and subjective offenses like “disobedience” or “disruptive behavior.”

Research suggests that stereotypes of African-American women as hypersexualized and aggressive may form the basis for the implicit bias that shapes teachers’ views of black female students and their behavior. Teachers may not even be aware that they are more likely to penalize African-American females than white girls for conduct, including fighting, that defies widely held stereotypes about what is appropriate “feminine” behavior.

Schools’ overly harsh responses to African-American girls’ perceived defiant behavior fail to take into consideration the underlying causes of the conduct at issue, which for some girls include exposure to trauma, violence, abuse, or other toxic stress from living in poverty and being confronted with racism and sexism. For African-American girls who have been victims of violence, trauma, and harassment, behavior considered to be aggressive may simply be a predictable response to victimization and unaddressed mental-health issues. When schools provide these students with trauma-informed services and support—instead of pushing them out of classrooms and schools—these students engage in the classroom and reap the benefits.

Harassment and violence in and out of school, even when not connected to discipline, undermine students’ educational opportunities. African-American women and girls experience higher rates of sexual violence and intimate-partner violence than white women and girls, report higher rates of sexual harassment at school, and are disproportionately likely to be victims of domestic sex trafficking, all of which have a significant impact.

It’s time to address the educational crisis facing African-American girls."

And many African-American women and girls are simply stuck on a school-to-poverty pathway, in which poor educational opportunities result in limited job prospects, concentration in low-wage work, and disproportionate representation among those in poverty.

Indeed, according to National Women’s Law Center calculations, more than 40 percent of African-American women age 25 or older without a high school diploma were living in poverty in 2013, compared with 9 percent of those who had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In contrast, the poverty rate for white women without a high school diploma is 28 percent and 5 percent for white women with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

But there is good news in the midst of these stark and troubling statistics: A survey last year by the Girl Scouts reveals that African-American girls aspire to be leaders more than any other group of girls and are the most likely group of girls to consider themselves as leaders. This finding indicates that when these young women are given the right opportunities, support, and encouragement, they can and will succeed.

“Unlocking Opportunity” sounds a call to action to address the barriers to educational success facing African-American girls, providing a holistic list of recommendations, including:

Create a positive climate for learning. Work to create and maintain safe and respectful environments where students can learn and have the support they need to overcome obstacles.

Reduce unfair and excessive discipline. Provide teachers and other school staff members and administrators with racial- and gender-bias training to root out discriminatory discipline practices and ensure that schools are supporting, not undermining, the academic success of African-American female students. Ensure that school training includes recognizing signs of trauma that may be underlying perceived defiant or disrespectful behavior.

Reduce gender-based bullying, harassment, and violence. Adopt strong anti-harassment policies, and provide students and school personnel with mandatory, age-appropriate, gender-identity-sensitive training on bullying, harassment, and violence; connect victims with counseling and other trauma-informed supports they may need.

Support leadership development among African-American girls. Develop programs to promote leadership, including mentoring programs, field trips, and guest speakers; provide training in conflict resolution, healthy communication, and problem-solving skills; create meaningful leadership opportunities for African-American girls.

Collect and report certain key data segmented by race and sex. Without compromising student privacy, compile information on disciplinary referrals (including specific reasons for disciplinary action), on incidents of harassment and violence, and on outcomes for pregnant and parenting students.

Direct philanthropic support for African-American girls and women. Target grant aid to support a range of research projects, advocacy initiatives, and community-based organizations and services that bolster the success of African-American girls.

It’s time to address the educational crisis facing African-American girls. This will require collaborative and coordinated efforts among a wide range of stakeholders—from policymakers and educators to community members and philanthropists. But the work will be more than worth the effort for schools and, most importantly, for the African-American young women they serve.

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Overlooked and in Need: Black Female Students

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