In a recent Web chat on edweek.org, Henry M. Levin, professor of economics and education at Columbia University, answered educators’ questions on boosting the achievement of African-American males. Here are some excerpts.
Are there specific methods or classroom practices that motivate African-American males to perform to their potential? For example, do small groups work better than whole group discussions, or does the instructional intent still play a large role in method choice with diverse students.
I am not sure that one can generalize about group size and pedagogy for black males since it depends upon the subject, the teacher’s skills in different instructional modes, and the use of balancing different approaches rather than relying on a single one. However, any approach that more nearly personalizes instruction is helpful. Personalization can be based upon small group or even tutoring approaches. But it can also draw upon guided independent study on topics of interest or of curiosity to the learner. My own experience suggests that personal mentoring has a very positive effect for the education of black males. If we can get members of the school staff or the larger community to take on mentoring tasks for individuals or small groups (advice, friendship, guidance, connections to employment and other opportunities, assistance with homework and assignments), we can get some very good results.
What role does teacher development and preparation play in addressing academic and social deficits among African-American males?
I think that teacher development and preparation can play an enormous role. However, too much of such preparation is traditional and largely removed from the actual teaching context. I would recommend a much greater emphasis on teachers working in groups to address learning issues; on learning to work more closely with parents to build their capacities; and on developing new curricular and instructional approaches based upon building on student strengths and experiences; and on learning how to evaluate the approaches that they have tried rather than waiting to see if the school has met AYP. I think that schools also need to have lead teachers and coaches who can guide and reinforce learning rather than assuming that professional development workshops or one-shot courses lead professional development in the absence of guided practice.
When and why do so many African- American males lose hope in the educational system of their community?
I don’t think that there is a simple answer to this question. So much of the struggle to grow and survive for black males places emphasis on the male part. Educated male role models are abundant in the middle class black community, but less so in the inner-city or rural areas. Families pressed by economic circumstances have difficulty making education a high priority and leave it largely to the school. Other hardships and residential mobility and the decline of the black church have undermined the broader social networks that provided guidance to black male students, and gangs have emerged to fill in the gaps. At the same time, the schools have not adjusted to the changing situation, as they attempt to standardize operations rather than to understand how to build on the strengths of black community and black males.
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook