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 disciplinary problems, according to a new report from the Urban Institute.
The paper, titled “Aiming Higher Together,” makes the case that boys and young men of color face a systemic predicament, beginning at birth, that places them at “risk for underperformance in school and life,” writes the report’s author, Ronald Ferguson, the director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative and a national expert on improving learning opportunities for disadvantaged children.
“It’s like being ensnared in a web and you just can’t quite get out of it,” Ferguson said in an interview with Education Week. “It’s not that you can’t escape. A young person with lots of family support, resources, and determination can avoid a lot of that ... but this is very structural and systemic.”
While acknowledging that 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 to kindergarten less prepared than white males.
- They’re at higher risk for out-of-school suspensions because of disparate discipline policies. They’re often stuck in schools where access to orderly, well-functioning classrooms is scarce.
- They interact with teachers and administrators who make judgments about them based on negative race and gender stereotypes.
- They encounter 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 says.
“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 compliment 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.
Ferguson’s report aims to address pathways to achieve three goals of the initiative; that all children enter school ready to learn, that they read at grade level by 3rd grade, and that they graduate from high school.
The report recommends helping parents prepare children for formal schooling by focusing on their 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 we have with boys and young men of color, we want to remove the counterproductive, less healthy aspects,” Ferguson said.
That includes interaction with their peers. In surveys Ferguson conducted for the report, students self-reported that they often misbehave because they fear the social consequences of not fitting in. But when Ferguson asked what types of behaviors should be considered acceptable, the answers were much different.
“It’s as if there’s a collective script,” he said. “Everybody is handed their part, and is responsible for learning it, even if they don’t like it.”
Graphic Credit: Urban Institute
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.