Early Childhood

Experts Call for Early Focus on Black Boys’ Nonacademic Skills

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 15, 2011 6 min read
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Schools should increase their attention to social and emotional development in the early grades as one way to prevent black boys from falling behind their peers, researchers said Tuesday at a symposium on closing the achievement gap between African-American males and other student groups.

Panelists at the meeting hosted Tuesday by the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service and the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund also said that a significant portion of the dollars spent on incarcerating black males in this country would be better spent on high-quality early-childhood education.

Given the typically low graduation rates and low scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress of black boys and youth, the symposium’s goal was to identify promising practices and policies to get black males off to a strong start. It focused on how to influence the path for the nation’s 3.5 million black boys under the age of 9.

“We want to consider ways to position this vulnerable population for educational success as early as possible in their lives,” said Michael T. Nettles, a senior vice president of ETS, in opening the forum.

To make that happen, said Oscar A. Barbarin III, a psychology professor at Tulane University, in New Orleans, “kindergarten and 1st grade have to be more like preschool” in addressing children’s needs holistically.

“You have to help your teachers incorporate more developmentally sensitive approaches,” added Mr. Barbarin, a panelist at the symposium. His research has focused on how social factors and family practices correlate with ethnic and gender achievement gaps that start in early childhood.

Mr. Barbarin characterized schools as stressing the teaching of academic content, starting in kindergarten, but giving short shrift to supporting children to learn social and emotional skills. He said principals should be placing their very best teachers in preschool and kindergarten, so that all children get a good start in school.

In addition, Mr. Barbarin likened the low academic achievement of black males in the United States to the proverbial canary in the coal mine. “They tell us an early-warning signal that things are not right,” he said.

He added that black boys respond negatively to school environments that aren’t conducive to learning, but at the same time, they “show the most gains” when those environments are improved.

The Tulane professor said he’d like to see the policies changed in the United States so that the estimated $40,000 typically spent each year to incarcerate a prisoner could instead be used to help low-income families establish good practices for learning and to improve education in preschool and the early grades.

The convergence of “maleness, ethnicity, and poverty,” he said, contributes to academic outcomes for black boys, which tend to be more negative than those for black girls.

The achievement gap between black boys and the average achievement levels for all children starts early and persists through the school years, said another presenter, Iheoma U. Iruka, a researcher at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study show that at the age of 24 months, black boys already lag behind average cognitive-development levels by about half a school year, and that gap is the same regardless of the income level of the boys’ families, she said.

Nationwide, however, the achievement gap for black boys and all students in reading and mathematics at the age of 9 decreased slightly from 1987 to 2008, which is good news, Ms. Iruka reported.

She added that studies show that in the early grades, black boys are rated by their teachers much lower than all children on average in what she calls “their approaches to learning”—curiosity, persistence, and initiating their own learning, among them.

Ms. Iruka urged policymakers to invest more money in early-childhood education, such as by boosting the quality of early-years instruction with higher salaries for early-childhood educators and caregivers.

Role of ‘Self-Regulation’

Only a small number of studies on the achievement of black boys in the early grades exist.

Jamaal S. Matthews, a professor of educational psychology at Montclair State University, in New Jersey, and two colleagues are among those who have contributed to the body of knowledge. They conducted a study of the link between “behavioral self-regulation” and academic achievement in African-American kindergartners. The study, published in the Journal of Educational Pyschology in 2009, found boys were less likely than girls to show self-regulation, but that didn’t translate into an achievement gap in kindergarten. The researchers looked at five areas of early achievement as measured by a standardized test: applied problems (mathematics), general knowledge, letter-word identification, expressive vocabulary, and sound awareness. The study involved 268 first-time kindergartners in a public school district in Michigan.

But given that black boys lag behind black girls in achievement in elementary and middle school, the findings spurred the researchers to ask “whether the gender gap in self-regulation in kindergarten is the seed of a problem waiting to take root in achievement or other important outcomes (i.e., school grades) in later years,” they wrote.

In an interview at yesterday’s meeting, Mr. Matthews said the ability of students to adjust their behavior, such as to initiate learning before a teacher asks them to do something, has a big impact in “making educational environments cater to them.” He added that boys who lack self-regulation skills may be viewed by teachers as aggressive.

Mr. Matthews said he agrees with Mr. Barbarin and Ms. Iruka that to improve achievement outcomes for African-American boys, schools need to focus more on their social-emotional skills. That aspect of schooling is “underplayed but of critical importance,” he said.

Resilience and Resistance

Two conference-goers drew hearty applause from some of the nearly 400 people in attendance when they suggested that broader societal issues other than what happens in schools affect the well-being of African-American boys.

“When do we begin to focus our energies on the repressive social system black boys are forced to live in in this country?” asked Thurman L. Bridges, during a question-and-answer session. He is an associate professor of teacher education at Morgan State University, in Baltimore.

If the success of black males is, in fact, a barometer for the health of society, he said, “we should focus our attention on assessing their resilience, their ability to survive, given the society is built for their demise.”

Stanley Howard, the founder of the Chicago-based Law and Civics Literacy Institute for Urban Males, wondered how educators can best boost educational outcomes for African-American males in a political context in which many Americans seem to be thinking: “Now you have a black president. What are you still crying about, bellyaching about?” He added, “What if black boys are economically obsolete?”

Wade Henderson, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, highlighted problems that affect black males in a big way, such as a lack of jobs, which he believes the federal government needs to address more effectively, and a high rate of incarceration. “I sympathize with your challenge,” Mr. Henderson said. “There is no easy answer.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Experts Call for Early Focus on Black Boys’ Nonacademic Skills

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