When the African American Male Student Doesn’t Succeed
Across the United States, teachers can quickly tell you who is the most at-risk student sitting in their classrooms. The answer is the same, whether it's from a teacher in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans, Detroit, Newark, or Birmingham. It's the student who struggled in 3rd grade. It's the student behind his peers in 8th grade reading levels. It's the student who spends the majority of his time in detention or in-school suspension. It's the student who has problems focusing in class, thus becoming disruptive. It's the student who stays on his teacher's mind each and every day of the school year. He is the one a teacher never forgets years later—always wondering where he is now, how he is doing, is he still alive. Who is this student? He's the African American male.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), there is a direct correlation between struggling learners with low reading levels and low socioeconomic backgrounds. Students from high-poverty areas experience academic challenges (PDF) and attend schools with limited financial and academic resources. These students are consistently underachieving and their achievement levels drop even more during the adolescent years. The data and the stats are the same across the United States and add up to the result: we have a broken education system.
As a result, public education has now become a system of 'haves' and 'have nots' (those who have financial resources versus those who do not). It mirrors the days of education equality and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In the midst of our broken system, we have lost the African American male who does not see the value in getting an education. A recent ACT Profile Report showed that only 32 percent of African American male students were college-ready in English composition and only 16 percent in math.
We have allowed African American males to become disconnected and unengaged in our classrooms. It is our job as educators to teach the whole child. Socioeconomic status should not be a precursor or indicative of whether you get a quality education. It is a global responsibility to make sure all students have adequate resources in schools, including having high-quality teachers, engaging curriculum, and access to technological tools to connect them with the 21st century world they live in. We need to delete the "it’s not my problem" attitude. Our failing education system is a global problem and we share the burden. The success of all children benefits everyone.
In a report by the Children Defense Fund, a survey from the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (cited by Handcuffs on Success: The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi Public Schools [PDF]) found that for the Mississippi school districts covered in the survey (115 out of 156), there were more than 54,000 students receiving out-of-school suspensions in the 2009–2010 school year, or 12 percent of students in these districts. The report also noted that nearly 75 percent of the suspended students were African American. In addition, it stated that zero tolerance discipline practices have been a detriment to African American males because we are criminalizing behavior instead of understanding the child's developmental needs. These policies do not increase academic achievement.
The African American male speaks loudly across classrooms, yet he has no voice. His voice has been taken away in the ideologies that favor policies and practices supporting incarceration over a quality education. The Children's Defense Fund report states that "the juvenile justice system is clogged with cases that don't belong there. Judges and veteran public defenders say that perhaps 30 percent of cases that now are brought to court used to be resolved within families, neighborhoods, or schools." We must stop this school-to-prison pipeline crisis that has become a cancer eating away the American dream.
The report included a study that showed how 3rd grade reading data have been used in some states as a predictor for future prison populations. The study showed a strong linkage between students who struggle in 3rd grade and juvenile delinquency. Within that data, those struggling students by and large were African Americans, and specifically, males. These 3rd grade students have two paths: college or prison. It is a travesty if we continue to allow the African American male student to falter in our educational system and land in the prison population. As Frederick Douglas stated, "it is easier to build strong children than to fix broken men." We can modify this in the early years with appropriate interventions.
There is no reason the United States can't be the global leader in educating each and every child, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic background. This is not unrealistic. We can prevent the African American male student from mentally dropping out in the early years. We have the tools and talent to provide a quality public education for all children in the country. We need to do so by integrating an engaging curriculum, early monitoring and interventions, common standards, and high expectations. We can become agents for change in our education system.
Dianna Minor is a former classroom teacher. She currently works as a curriculum and instruction specialist in Alabama and as a consultant with American College Testing (ACT). She is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English, International Reading Association, and National Education Association. Connect with Minor by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @diminordan.