I thought I knew something about black male students but I can honestly say that over the last few months my eyes have been opened in part because my dissertation topic has forced me to really examine the data. When compared to other America children black males are more likely to die during their first year of life. They are often unprepared for kindergarten and if they cannot learn to read by third grade they may never catch up. Black males are more likely to be placed in special education, which some theorists contend is nothing more than a holding pen for them until society can get them to prison.
Information provided by the US Department of Education’s Our Nation’s Report Card reveals that black male students lag behind their white male counterparts on 4th and 8th grade reading and math standardized tests. Additionally, data obtained by the Schott Foundation indicates that nationwide only 59% of black males graduate from high school and most of those who do walk across the stage to receive their diplomas have sub-par grade point averages (GPAs). A low GPA can have an impact on a person’s future because colleges and universities often use them to determine, which students will be accepted to a school and which ones will receive a rejection letter in the mail.
But what can be done about black male underachievement? I would argue that the first order of business is to find a way to keep them in school. In many schools African American males are seen as problems, troublemakers or deviants, and they are often suspended or expelled for minor infractions. Such punishments can have a devastating effect on their academic performance since students who aren’t in school will miss valuable instructional time.
Second, while I will admit that some black male students pose a challenge educators must find a way to connect with the students they do not like. Of course this is easier said than done, but I do think that sometimes educators need to forth a little more effort to relate to their students. For example, I once watched a colleague struggle with the children in his classroom but over time he learned how to talk and interact with them – it took time, it took effort, but he was able to do it. The students in his classroom didn’t change – he changed. He learned how to motivate them, challenge them, and for lack of a better phase “speak their language”.
I have been in this game for a long time to know that some people might take issue with my first two recommendations because at first glance they appear to blame teachers for underachievement of black male students. Such criticisms are misguided. My first two recommendations are based on the premise that teachers matter and can play a pivotal role in the social an academic trajectory of black male students. Instead of coming down on teachers, we need to find a way to support them in their efforts to help children.
Some black male students would benefit greatly from more formal and informal mentors. A formal mentor could perhaps best be described as someone from the Big Brothers program, an academic adviser or a person involved in a Rights of Passage Program. Such individuals must attend workshops or be trained to make sure they know what they are doing and know how to take the right steps to help black male children and adolescents. By contrast, an informal mentor might be a positive family member, religious figure or even a community member. An informal mentor might lack formal training, but can provide valuable insight into how to black male students can overcome academic hurdles.
My research has helped me understand that while black male student face challenges they are also full of promise. Despite the obstacles they face I am convinced that their social and academic plight will improve if researchers, educators and parents find a way to unearth their academic potential.