A Guide to Ending the Crisis Among Young Black Males

When we talk about reaching students in our classrooms that come from disadvantaged backgrounds, we tend to put several groups under one umbrella. Minority students. Immigrant students. Kids from low socioeconomic households. While it’s true that all of these groups of students need a different approach than their white, English-speaking, middle-class peers, our education system is not yet doing enough to address specific needs within these at-risk groups. The initiatives that help one group tremendously may not have as large a positive impact on another, and vice versa.

Black boys are a student demographic that has been, and continues to be, misunderstood in P-20 classrooms. Misbehavior, learning styles, and social skills are often misconstrued as problems by educators when in fact, black boys are simply not receiving the most effective forms of discipline, lessons, and peer-interaction opportunities. As a result, many are slipping through the proverbial cracks and not learning at their potential levels. That lack of learning leads to higher school dropout levels, higher rates of poverty, and higher incarceration rates, too.

Perhaps there is no real connection between the academic failures of black boys and incarceration/poverty, or the eerily similar statistics associated with young Latino men. Are these young people simply bad apples, destined to fail academically and then live a life of crime? Proponents of genetic predisposition would argue that these young men never stood a chance at success and have simply accepted their lots in life. When I hear these sorts of excuses for why we aren’t best serving the black boys in our classrooms, I often think they are just too easy to be the right answers. They are all just too convenient, particularly if the people speaking them into existence come from backgrounds and experiences that are not indicative of black young men.

What if all of these theories, these so-called truths about these often-vilified children learning in our schools, are just the lazy way out? What if scoffing at a connection between a strong education and a life lived on the straight and narrow is an easy way to bypass the real issues in K-12 learning that actually put real barriers in place for black boys? What if the failures of black boys are really our faults, not theirs?

While there is always a level of personal responsibility on the part of the student to weigh in, I believe all of society’s failures when it comes to black boys are traceable back to education. While it is certainly not the fault of teachers or classroom settings, placing the blame on outside factors, like family setup or poverty, does not actually solve the problem. Schools, particularly public ones, are great equalizers for our children and youth. When we have disadvantaged students in our midst, why aren’t we employing every tactic we’ve got into trying to combat those outside factors that are so detrimental? When we throw up our hands and say that black boys can’t be saved, or that individual students are better off serving suspensions or expulsions than sitting in our classrooms learning, we are really saying that we don’t have any power in the lives of our students. I think most rational educators would argue that is the farthest argument from the truth.

Consider this: Black students tend to have lower amounts of teachers who are certified in their degree areas. A U.S. Department of Education report found that in public high schools with at least 50 percent Black students, only 75 percent of math teachers were certified, compared to 92 percent in predominantly white schools. In English, the numbers were 59 and 68 percent, respectively and in science, they were 57 percent and 73 percent. (Teacher Qualifications, 2010) Numbers like these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the disadvantages that take place in schools where children of color are the majority. When those children are boys, the outlook is even more dismal. These statistics are just one area of disadvantage that I plan to point out in the chapter. The aim is not to place blame on any one group or entity but rather to lead us away from the excuses that keep us from improving the public school experiences of black boys, and other at-risk groups.

As an educational community, it’s time to stop acting like generational poverty and crime are not related – that harsh discipline in schools is not related to incarceration rates. Low rates of literacy and high rates of special education referrals among black boys aren’t coincidences. There isn’t one reason that black boys are failing on such a large scale; the factors that play into the general underachievement of the black young men in our classrooms are varied, and complicated. Like all of the intricate problems in our school systems, improving the achievement of black young men in our schools won’t happen overnight.

Starting from a place of understanding, grounded in facts, is a good jumping off point. Information has a way of triggering action which is the hope for this chapter. For every obstacle that black boys face, I will discuss practical strategies that educators can use to mitigate them.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

It’s a statistically sound fact that high school dropouts in all demographics have a higher likelihood of incarceration at some point in their lives. Sadly, over half of black young men who attend urban high schools do not earn a diploma. Of the dropouts, nearly 60 percent will go to prison at some point (Crotty, Four Things I Learned from Coaching ‘Poor Black Kids’, 2011). In fact, The Sentencing Project projects that 1 in 3 black men will likely see the inside of a prison cell at some point in their lives (Racial Disparity, n.d.). The connection here is not just superficial. Yes, it’s fair to say that high school dropouts are more likely to commit crimes because they do not have the means to make an honest living, but I also think this connection centers on a mentality. The same black boys who believe they aren’t good enough to earn the basic American right, a high school diploma, are the ones who feel they cannot make a solid contribution to society at large.

In order to delve more deeply, we need to go even further back. The decision to drop out of high school, after all, isn’t reached overnight. There are many factors that play into any student’s choice to not continue on to earn a high school diploma, some that are completely out of the control of the school and others that are certainly influenced by it.

Look in the face of any Kindergarten student and you’ll find some common themes: innocence, unquenchable curiosity, and potential. More so than the grades that follow, Kindergarten is a mixed bag of developmental, social and academic levels. Some kids arrive with a few years of childcare and preschool under their belts, while others have never even had a book read to them. The students who arrive in these Kindergarten classrooms are already products of their limited life experiences but their public school classrooms are intended to be equalizers. In a perfect world, what has happened outside the classroom should not be a factor in the learning environment and all students should have the same clean slate.

The reality, of course, is that the behavior of children is impacted by their life experiences and that behavior does impact the way a classroom functions. Kindergarten is just the first opportunity in our official public school system for teachers to effect positive change in students who need it from a behavioral standpoint – the real work starts before that though. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights reports that black students make up just 18 percent of preschoolers but account for almost half of all school suspensions.  Those statistics don’t improve with age. Around 5 percent of white students are suspended or expelled at some point in a K-12 career, compared with 16 percent of black students (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014)

Enter the school-to-prison pipeline, or the correlation between students who are removed (suspended or expelled) from school and those who end up in prison at some point in their lives. Students who are removed from school, either temporarily or forever, also drop out of high school at much higher rates than students who are never removed from a classroom setting.

A study published by the University of Pennsylvania reports that black students make up 39 percent of students suspended in Florida, which doesn’t sound all that terrible until you consider another statistic: black students only account for 23 percent of the public school population in Florida (Harper, n.d.). The study notes that black students are suspended and expelled more due to “unfair discipline practices” and appearing as “disrespectful or threatening.”

While the numbers for the state are bad, it gets worse in Orange County in the central part of the state where Orlando is located. Making up just 27 percent of the county’s public school population, black students represents 51 percent of the students suspended.

This is just a small portion of the country, of course, but consider this: 18 percent of the nation’s public school students are black but an estimated 40 percent of all students that are expelled from U.S. schools are black (Stevenson, 2013). This makes black students over three times more likely to face suspension or expulsion than their white peers. When you add in Latino numbers, 70 percent of all in-school arrests are black or Latino students. If you want to see the correlation between these school-age statistics and lifetime numbers, consider this: 61 percent of the incarcerated population are black or Latino – despite the fact that these groups only represent 30 percent of the U.S. population when combined. Nearly 68 percent of all men in federal prison never earned a high school diploma.

Given this information, the fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world is no surprise. The road to lockup starts in the public school systems — and it starts with unfair punishment.

Sixty-five percent of U.S. public schools reported at least one violent incident in 2013-2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in their schools each year, but that number rises to 82 percent for schools where black students make up a majority (Rates of School Crime, 2015) . Though Hispanic boys are the most likely to be involved with gang activity at school, it is certainly an issue for black boys too – with 31 percent of students nationwide reporting seeing black gang activity in their schools. Violence is just one part of the criminal side of K-12 hallways, though. There are also higher numbers of non-violent crimes, like theft, in schools where more students are black than any other race.

All of that being said, there is still plenty of violence in schools where black students are the minority, and those acts are committed by non-black students. It’s also important to note that reporting standards for school crime may vary from school to school. This isn’t to say that educators and administrators are not telling the truth in predominantly white schools, but rather to say that based on other statistics, students of color tend to face harsher punishment for even the smallest offenses.

Over and over statistics show that punishment for black boys – even first-time offenders – in schools is harsher than any other demographic.

Black boys taken from schools in handcuffs are not always violent, or even criminals. Increasingly, school-assigned law enforcement officers are leading these students from their schools hallways for minor offenses, including class disruption, tardiness and even non-violent arguments with other students. It seems that it is easier to remove these students from class through the stigma of suspension or arrest than to look for in-school solutions.

Minnesota civil rights attorney Nekima Levy-Pounds writes that “it is a continual affront to the human dignity of black boys to be treated as second class citizens within the public school system and made to feel as though they are not welcome in mainstream classroom settings.” (Levy-Pounds, 2015)

Simply put, the currently accepted way of disciplining students—mainly “zero tolerance” policies — is doing more harm than good for young black boys.

When one student is causing a classroom disruption, the traditional way to address the issue has been removal – whether the removal is for five minutes, five days or permanently. Separating the “good” students and the “bad” ones has always seemed the fair, judicious approach. On an individual level this form of discipline may seem necessary to preserve the educational experience for others. If all children came from homes that implemented a cause-and-effect approach to discipline, this might be the right answer. Unfortunately, an increasing number of students come from broken homes, or ones where parents don’t have the desire or time to discipline. Even the parents with the skillset to discipline in this fashion may not have the time or energy, especially in a home where finances are tight. For these students, removal from education is simply another form of abandonment and only furthers the lesson that they are not good enough to learn alongside their peers.

High profile instances of school violence in recent years have led to a higher presence of law enforcement officers in public schools, often politely labeled as resource officers or a similarly vague term. Of course the presence of guns and other immediate danger items in schools are cause for arrest, or at least temporary removal of the student, but the American Civil Liberties Union reports that children as young as 5 throwing tantrums have been removed in handcuffs by these officers (School-to-Prison Pipeline, n.d.). Rather than addressing the heart of the individual problems, it is easier for public schools to weed out troublesome students under the umbrella of protecting the greater good. Convenience triumphs over finding actual solutions.

The term “zero tolerance” may sound like the best way to handle all offenses in public schools, but it really does a disservice to students. Not every infraction is a black and white issue and not every misstep by a student is a result of direct defiance. Often students with legitimate learning disabilities or social impairment are labeled as “disruptions” and removed from classroom settings under the guise of preserving the learning experience for other, better-behaved students. I suppose there is an argument to be made for protecting straight-and-narrow students from the sins of others, but at what cost?

We tell students that gaining an education is an unalienable right in America but then we withhold it from their peers in the name of discipline and order. Would we withhold food from students who interrupted our math lesson? Of course we wouldn’t because nutrition is something that isn’t earned – it is a necessity for growing children. The same is true of education. Our knee-jerk reaction of removal, particularly of children of color, is not one that has the best interest of any children in mind.

Though ideology on problem students is slowly evolving, at least at present the removal process is most widely accepted. So let’s look at what happens when these individuals, these students who are suspended or expelled, do eventually slip through the accepted cracks and wind up dropping out of high school or landing in prison.

In a blog post by Sally Powalski, a 10-year employee of a juvenile long-term facility in the State of Indiana, she addresses what she sees every day: young men with no expectations of improvement and therefore no motivation.

Sally says this of the young men who come through her counselor’s office:

“They have been given the message for several years that they are not allowed in regular school programs, are not considered appropriate for sports teams, and have had their backs turned on them because everyone is just tired of their behavior… Why should they strive for more than a life of crime?” (Powalski, 2013)

Sally hits the nail on the head with her observations. Children are just as much a product of their environments as the expectations placed on them. Parents on a first-name basis with law enforcement officials certainly influence the behavior of their children, but school authorities with preconceived negative associations create an expectation of failure too. Increasingly, educators are learning how to recognize the signs of textbook learning disabilities like ADHD or dyslexia. But what about the indirect impact that factors like poverty, abuse, neglect or simply living in the wrong neighborhood have on a student’s ability to learn? Why aren’t we finding ways to identify the known risk factors for academic impairment and intervening earlier?

Educators should approach students from disadvantaged backgrounds with more understanding, and less preconceived notions. Behavior is a choice but students who have never seen the right way to act modeled for them, or who are looking for that extra bit of attention in classrooms, bad behavior is an academic disadvantage. Instead of less time in classrooms, black boys and especially those with very minor behavior issues should participate more in the learning experience.

Why care about the school-to-prison pipeline at all?

People who fall outside this fringe group of perceived misfits may wonder why the school-to-prison pipeline should matter to them. Outside of caring about the quality of life for other individuals, which is really something that is not teachable, the school-to-prison pipeline matters in more tangible ways. Each federal prisoner costs taxpayers $28,948 per year based on 2012 statistics, which is about $79 per day (Supervision Costs Significantly Less than Incarceration in Federal System, 2013). That’s a measurable cost. What isn’t measurable is the indirect impact those incarcerations have on the economy in terms of those prisoners not contributing to the work force. Sure, we may pay the salary of prison employees or the CEOs of large prison privatization corporations but we are missing out on the positive impact these prisoners could have on our economy.

This is an American problem.  It hurts everyone. If we want more high school graduates, less crime, and a more robust economy, we have to stop punishing black boys with school removals or discipline effects that don’t match the offense.

How to break the school-to-prison pipeline

If removal and zero tolerance policies don’t help black boy students long term, what is the best way to discipline students when they do misbehave?

The best answer is found long before the moment when discipline is necessary. Prevention and intervention tactics need a place in all teaching pedagogy and those tactics must adjust for demographics – and individual students. Schools need to offer robust programs for at-risk students that include mentoring from older students, after-school tutoring, and customized learning. If all of this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Technology is making the customized learning portion much easier though and also allowing teachers to analyze student performance in a streamlined way long before problems arise. And as simple as it sounds, teachers must approach behavior problems with students in the same way they approach academic problems – with an analytical eye that looks for the best solution that will benefit everyone. Notice that I didn’t say the easiest or best for all the other students in class. I said the best solution for everyone – teacher, peers, and individual student. The benefits to keeping a child in class, or at least in school, far outweigh emotionally kicking a child out of class or recommending suspension.

Educators can certainly strive to reduce suspension and expulsion rates with better intervention and strategy. But what about the students who choose to walk away from their educations when they drop out of high school?

In his piece “A Broken Windows Approach to Education Reform,” Forbes writer James Marshall Crotty makes a direct connection between drop-out and crime rates. He argues that if educators will simply take a highly organized approach to keeping kids in school, it will make a difference in the crime statistics of the future. He says:

“Most importantly, instead of merely insisting on Common Core Standards of excellence, we must provide serious sticks for non-compliance. And not just docking teacher and administrative pay. The real change needs to happen on the student and parent level.” (Crotty, A Broken Windows Approach to Education Reform, 2013)

He cites the effectiveness of states not extending driving privileges to high school dropouts or not allowing athletic activities for students who fail a class. With higher stakes associated with academic success, students will have more to lose if they walk away from their education. And the higher the education level of a student, the lower the risk of criminal activity, statistically speaking.

Students who are at risk of dropping out of high school or turning to crime need more than a good report card.  They need alternative suggestions on living a life that rises above their current circumstances. For a young person to truly have a shot at an honest life, he or she has to believe in the value of an education and its impact on good citizenship. That belief system has to come from direct conversations about making smart choices with trusted adults and peers. If we know how much less a high school dropout makes than peers with a diploma, and peers with a college education, then we should tell all high school students that number. It’s not enough to imply that dropping out of high school is a bad idea; students should have all the facts.

For students who struggle socially or behaviorally in high school, schools should intervene with non-traditional options like online courses. This is also true for students who feel the pressure to start earning a living early. The technology is already in place for all students, regardless of discipline issues or life circumstances, to earn a high school diploma. A college degree is nice too, of course, but the true key to ending the school-to-prison pipeline for black boys is keeping them in classrooms instead of removing them, and getting them across the stage to receive their high school diplomas. It will take an organized ideology shift but it’s possible, even in the next generation of black boy students.

Black Boys Aren’t Reading

Literacy is the basic building block for the rest of an academic career and the lifetime that follows it. Research shows that kids who come from homes where reading was a priority, and they were read to by their parents, perform better academically throughout their lives. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that Kindergarten students who are read frequently to at home are more likely to count to 20, write their own names, and read (or pretend to read). Only 53 percent of children ages 3 to 5 are read to every day by a family member, though, and that number drops for families with incomes below the poverty line (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000). The importance of parental influence in reading extends beyond the youngest grades. The U.S. Department of Education reports that fourth-grade classrooms with low parental involvement have students with average reading scores that are 46 points below the national average.

Reading isn’t important just for its own sake, however. Literacy is the foundation for all other learning endeavors. The Educational Testing Services reports that students who read more in their homes perform better on math assessments (Educational Testing Service, 1999). The connection between reading in early childhood and its impact on future years is clear. Since parents, grandparents, and siblings are the default role models most of the time during that vital 0 to 5 age group, the responsibility to instill early literacy falls on families.

That’s a problem for black boys. Only 10 percent of eighth-grade black boys in the U.S. are proficient in reading. In urban areas like Chicago and Detroit, that number is even lower (Holzman, 2013). By contrast, the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress found that 46 percent of white students are adequate readers by eighth grade, and 17 percent of black students as a whole are too (The Nation’s Report Card: A First Look: 2013 Mathematics and Reading, 2013). The achievement gap between the two races is startling, but the difference between the NAEP report on black students as a whole and the stats on black boys alone is troubling too. This is where that important dissection between at-risk groups needs to take place. It is not simply black children in general who appear to be failing in the basics, like literacy; it is the boys.

Where does that disconnect arise? Hypothesizing from the NAEP data, a brother and sister from the same household could have vastly different literacy levels, even if they come from the same environment and are read to the same amount of time (even if that amount of time is none). That difference – that gap in literacy achievement – shouldn’t fall on parents. That’s the fault of our schools. Literacy learning is tailored to girls. So how do we adapt it to better reach our boys – particularly our young men of color?

Reading is only one piece of the school puzzle, of course, but it is a foundational one. If the eighth graders in our schools cannot read, how will they ever learn other subjects and make it to a college education (or, in reality, to a high school diploma)? Reading scores tell us so much more than the confines of their statistics and I believe these numbers are one of the major keys to understanding the plight of young black men in our society as a whole.

Developing black readers

The statistics point to a startling, yet simple, truth: black boys who cannot read are already in trouble. So if we know that black boys aren’t reading the level they should, what can we do to improve that? It starts with awareness and extends to:

Customized reading plans.

A large part of improving the reading rates of black boys is to provide curriculum plans that are a little less rigid and a little more nuanced. As adults, the reading materials we pick up for the pure joy of reading are as varied as we are and it’s acceptable for individuals to prefer certain genres over others. Kids don’t have the same freedom. In fairness, before kids can determine what reading materials they will love, they must first have exposure to a wide variety. Still. When reading is uninteresting, it’s hard. That’s something that doesn’t change into adulthood. Early learning teachers, from preschool through the rest of elementary school, must have a diverse knowledge of the reading materials available for their age groups and try, try, and try again until a certain subject or genre clicks.

The idea that all Kindergartners, and older grades, should read the exact same things is not only flawed, it’s unnecessary. Today’s technology makes it simple for kids to read a variety of materials that are equal in grade level to each other, even if the topics differ. There is even educational software that creates supplemental and testing materials based on the individual pieces that children read so that teachers are not tasked with writing 20 different lesson plans based on reading preferences.

Young children love fantasy, but they also connect most with what they know. Diversity in reading materials and the ability to choose what to read based on interests will go a long way toward pulling black boys into the literacy realm early on and keeping them there. This is true from preschool through college graduation. This strict adherence to a literary canon filled with mainly white, European, male authors and viewpoints hurts all of our students, but particularly those of color. To instill a love for reading our students have to genuinely love what their eyes see. That view must expand to include much more diversity in options, both electronic and books in hand.

Intervention targeting.

The concept of learning everything first, and testing last, is starting to see its way out of our classrooms – but not fast enough. Feedback throughout the learning process, and taking action immediately when students are falling behind, is a much smarter way to keep students invested in learning. A student who misses out on a learning concept will not learn at the next level and that will continue indefinitely until remediation occurs. Teachers are on the frontlines of intervention, and parents are a close second string. Parents whose own parents were never involved in their learning pursuits may not know how to follow their kids’ progress and some may simply not care. When either scenario takes place, it falls on the teacher to step up and fill in the learning gaps.

When it comes to intervention targeting, Kindergarten teachers should take entry assessments as more than a baseline number; they should see them as a call to action. Very specific actionable steps should be at the disposal of the teacher so when certain weakness are noted, there is a plan in place that addresses them. These plans must be thorough and come with benchmarks that delve deeper than what the average and above-average performing students must achieve. Does this mean more work for teachers? Some extra upfront time and planning time, yes. Which is why entire school systems must recognize the need for better reading intervention that begins on day one of Kindergarten, whether that manifests itself in more teacher aides, better technology for reading customization, or more reading specialists on staff.

I’m not suggesting that teachers label and remediate every student individually, but rather that more concrete policies on how to bring students up to speed are put in place in school districts around the country. In public schools this is especially vital. While it’s true that some parents choose public schools, the majority of children attend out of default. It’s not a bad thing – but parents who take the time to research and send their children to non-public options often have the time and energy to follow the academic journeys of their kids. There’s a stronger chance that a child in a public school needs that extra watchful eye of a teacher in order to reach goals. That eye can’t just observe; it must take what it sees and use it as a tool for strengthen academic weaknesses.

Individual intervention is not the only thing that black boys need to read better and perform at a higher academic level. Blanket programs that research, create, and deliver literacy-driven content to black boys should exist. Public schools are wards of the state but this issue is too big to leave to the whims of partisan-driven agendas. More federal oversight into what black boys, and all at-risk groups, are reading from their earliest days in public school classrooms is needed. These programs need insight from experts in the fields of education, literacy, minority studies, and even civil rights. To really get to the heart of the problem of black boys not reading at an acceptable rate, expertise must combine with first-hand experience. Teachers who work in early education classrooms should certainly sit on the consultation teams in order to develop appropriate standards of intervention based on real-life scenarios that take place. A wider approach to answering the needs of black boys in a reading crisis will go a long way toward raising awareness and actually impacting individual children.

Black Boys and Special Education

Special education classes have changed drastically in the past 20 years. Namely, the students who take advantage of these adapted learning classrooms have changed. Contemporary public school education recognizes that there are degrees of disabilities that may impact student learning and the rise of conditions like autism has fueled the need for more special education intervention.

As a result, the mental image that even today’s youngest educators have of special education students is probably not accurate. For example, did you know that black boys are more likely than any other group to be placed in special education classes, with 80 percent of all special education students being Black or Hispanic males?  Black boys account for 20 percent of U.S. students labeled as mentally retarded, even though they represent just 9 percent of the population. On the other end of the extreme, black boys are 2.5 times less likely to be classified as “gifted and talented” even if their academic record shows that potential. (National Education Association, 2011)

If all things were weighed equally, these statistics would indicate that there is something genetically wrong with these young men that is causing a higher incidence of disabilities and smaller percentage of gifted individuals. Educators know better. While some, perhaps even a majority, of the black boys categorized as special education students belong in that grouping, some are simply misunderstood. Those behavior issues mentioned earlier in this chapter? You better believe that those play a factor in where these students are placed in school hierarchy. While unpleasant behavior is certainly a symptom of learning disabilities – like ADHD and some degrees of autism – it isn’t in and of itself a disability. A lack of understanding surrounding how black boys interact with the world, and a quick trigger when it comes to disciplinary and removal practices, is contributing to higher-than-average numbers of black boys in special education classrooms. This is not something that any educator can sit by and let continue, for it impacts the way all students are treated in the public school landscape.

How to solve the black boy-special education problem

The statistics on high numbers of black and Latino boys in special education programs is more than an interesting tidbit – it’s a call to action. What can we do to identify true learning delays and isolated behavior problems and disseminate them from disabilities?

Early intervention.

Here we are again, using the word intervention to identify an actionable step to improve academic success for black boys. There’s a reason intervention is more than just a buzz word; catching developmental delays early on shows the greatest promise for improvement. This starts before Kindergarten in the Head Start programs across the country and state-run intervention initiatives, like Florida’s Early Step program. Investments in early education have shown to return as much as $17.07 to society on every dollar spent (Lynn A. Karoly, 2005).

Doctors are at the frontlines of the early intervention referral program and know what warning signs to heed, even when parents may not. The time between a doctor’s referral and the start of services can take several months, depending on the state and resources available, and that is precious time in the development of the child. For early intervention to have its biggest impact, the time between suspicion of delays and start of services must be accelerated. Children who are diagnosed with developmental delays by the age of 3 have the best shot at catching up to their peers by the time they reach Kindergarten. After that age cutoff, the likelihood of children keeping with their classmates fades.

When black boys with obvious developmental delays do wind up in Kindergarten classes, however, it’s vital that teachers spot it. This takes specialized training that is updated and repeated throughout a teacher’s career to address the ever shifting issues facing our youngest students. Change also calls on teachers to look beyond their preconceived notions of learning disabilities to determine which students may have a shot at overcoming the hurdles and avoiding the special education label. Rather than grouping students for life, we need to start looking at some academic and behavioral issues as temporary and applying the resources we can to guide students over the hurdles.


The idea that special education students should be removed in order to learn best is actually being flipped on its head due to recent research. A study done at The Ohio State University found that special-needs preschoolers who spent at least some time in classrooms with typical students had language scores 40 percent higher than peers who remained in special-needs only settings. The improvements extended beyond the special-needs kids, as well. The highly-skilled peers also improved their reading skills over rates from when no special-needs students were in the classroom. In short, the “weakest link” mentality did not apply. (Grabmeier, 2014)

It’s true that true special needs students need a different educational plan than their mainstream peers and that ultimately means some time outside the typical classroom. Special needs students should never be completely isolated from their peers though, and in cases where the classification is not accurate, that will become apparent as children overcome the developmental hurdles they face.

Cultural awareness.

It’s extremely vital that teachers have a knowledge set of students outside of their own life experiences and an understanding of how the way those children behave is impacted by it. Students without the benefit of preschool or parents who had the time and availability to teach them literacy basics will not perform as well when they arrive in classrooms. Next to their peers who have had such advantages, they may even seem delayed. It’s important to note, however, that the first required schooling for American children is Kindergarten. There is a push for a lot more learning a lot earlier, but from a purely legal standpoint, kids are not required to show up to learn until they are Kindergarten age (which is defined as late as 7 years old in some states). The cultural expectation is that these children should already know a lot when they arrive, both academically and socially, but for children from families who waited for that Kindergarten age, it truly is the first time they’ve seen a classroom.

Universal preschool in states like Florida, Illinois and Oklahoma can help bridge that learning and socialization gap for low-income families but once again, these programs are voluntary. It’s not fair or accurate for educators to assume that even in states when preschool education is affordable or free, parents are taking advantage of it. There are many factors that go into the level of education families pursue for their children before the school years officially start. Compared to peers, this puts children with no prior classroom experience at a disadvantage. But compared to what is actually required of the students when they show up on that first day of Kindergarten, these blank slate students are exactly where they need to be from a learning perspective.

With that in mind, early grade educators must know the difference between true special education warning signals and a kid who just needs to catch up. There are evaluation processes in place beyond the teacher but it starts in a classroom. This isn’t to say that teachers should try to champion behavior or learning issues they cannot change but merely for them to be aware that not all children have the advantages of an early learning foundation. That doesn’t mean necessarily that all of those children have special education needs.

Black Boys and the Lack of Positive Role Models

There are plenty of black men who positively impact the young men coming up in their communities. Some are high-profile while others are local businessmen, or even teachers. As a general statement, however, black boys have less people to look up to and hold accountable than their white, and even other minority, peers.

Consider these statistics: Less than half of black males graduate high school on time. In 2008, only 11 percent of black males in America had completed a bachelor’s degree – and only half of the 4.6 million who had attended college had made it to graduation (National Education Association, 2011). Seventy-two percent of black children are raised in single-parent households and the national average is only 25 percent. Those single parents are more likely to be employed than the national average, but also more likely to live in poverty (Kids Count Data Center, 2014). Then there’s that humbling stat from earlier in the chapter on incarceration: 61 percent of the U.S. prison population is black or Latino.

School is a second home to K-12 students and black boys don’t have many role models who look the way that they do. Black males make up just 2 percent of the K-12 school teacher population (Reckdahl, 2015) . Less than 20 percent of U.S. teachers are not white even though minority students combined make up a majority of K-12 students (Holland, 2014). It’s not that educators who are female and white can’t have a positive impact on the lives of their students – they certainly can and do. There’s a difference between a teacher who has a different life viewpoint than you and a true role model. Black boys need to see adults like them who are high school graduates, have college degrees, are successful in the workplace, and who aren’t incarcerated. If that adult also happens to be a teacher, even better. How do we make that happen though in a school landscape that is a far cry from it right now?

Better recruitment.

Here’s a thought: If we aren’t seeing enough diversity in our teaching pool, perhaps we need to try harder to bring them into the industry. This starts before college, though. Young black men of promise in middle and high school should see the field of education as a life path for them. Schools of education at colleges need scholarships to recruit these men and school districts need the extra funding to attract these men when they have their degrees.

The Call Me MISTER Program, first started in South Carolina, has made its way south and onto the campus of Edward Waters College. Starting in 2000 at Clemson University, the Call Me MISTER Program was designed to “increase the pool of available teachers from a broader, more diverse background particular among the State’s lowest performing elementary schools.” (Call Me Mister, n.d.)

In essence, the program is needed to address the low number of minority male teachers. According to the Department of Education, less than two percent of public teachers nationwide are black men. (Reckdahl, 2015)

This program aims to increase that number by offering scholarships to qualified applicants.

To apply for the program, applicants must have a high school diploma with a 2.5 GPA or better, letters of recommendation, an ACT score of 21 or higher, an SAT score of 1000 or better, and two essays. One to express interest in the program and the other regarding “Why I Want to Teach.”

Why is having more black men in the classroom important? Yes, it’s great for the purpose of diversity and to increase numbers that are tracked by the government. But for many students who need positive black male role models, this program certainly is one of the more important ones offered by our institutions of higher education.

Better tracking.

One teacher can make a positive impact on a student but what happens when the student moves to another class the next year? What happens to all of that shared knowledge and camaraderie? The technology exists for better data on students from one year to the next, and one class to another, with ways to target those who need extra guidance.

The message of hope for men of color is spreading, both through smaller gestures and through larger initiatives such as President Obama’s program My Brother’s Keeper.

Many of the nation’s largest school districts have joined President Obama’s initiative to improve the educational futures of African-American and Hispanic boys, beginning in preschool extending through high school graduation — dubbed the “My Brother’s Keeper” program.

The districts, which represent around 40 percent of all African-American and Hispanic boys living below the poverty line, have committed to improve access to high quality preschool, track data on male students so educators can notice signs of struggle as soon as possible, increase the number of boys of color who are enrolled in gifted, honors and Advanced Placement courses, strive to reduce the number of minority boys who are suspended and expelled, and increase graduation rates among minority males. The initiative is a five-year, $200 million plan.

In Washington, D.C., D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced a plan to invest $20 million to support programs for Washington D.C.’s men of color. This included opening an all-boys college preparatory high school in 2017 under the “Empowering Males of Color” initiative. (Chandler, 2015) The funding for the support programs will come from private and public sources. The D.C. Public Education Fund is working to raise money to support these initiatives outside the operating budget.

Henderson’s decision to invest seriously in the specific needs of minority boys has everything to do with “mathematics,” she says. Black and Latino boys make up 43 percent of the students enrolled in D.C.’s public schools. The graduation rates, reading and math scores and attendance of minority boys are all lagging in the District. By fourth grade, nearly half of the city’s black and Latino male students are reading below grade level.

In the District, 48 percent of black male students and 57 percent of Hispanic male students graduate in four years, compared with 66 percent of their classmates. Only about a third of black male students are proficient in reading and math, compared with nearly 66 percent of students who are not black or Latino males, according to DC CAS scores.

The push is a citywide effort led by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser who is working to improve equity and increase opportunities for black and Latino males. The efforts also align with President Obama’s work to help keep male minority students in school and out of prison.

Through this initiative, black young men are given a larger pool of support, particularly from other male minorities. It’s not just individual teachers or schools that are standing up for these young men. It’s entire communities. These types of programs are vital to the success of young black boys because they take a multi-person approach to improving the outcomes for these men.

More outreach from the business community.

Educators alone simply cannot turn the tide for black boys of color. It’s important that those who have been successful breaking free of poverty or incarceration turn back around and inspire the next generation to do the same.

An example of this in action happened on the first day of school 2015 when 100 men of color wearing suits greeted elementary students of color on their first day of school. (Velez, 2015)

The message these men were trying to send was that if you did work hard and get good grades in school, you’ll eventually find some semblance of the American dream in life. It’s what all kids are taught as they matriculate through grade school. It’s why we so often hear the saying that one should “dress for success.”

This image contrasts against the statistics, which state that black male “students in grades K-12 were nearly 2 1/2 times as likely to be suspended from school in 2000 as white students” and that most of the nearly 2.5 million people in prisons and jails “are people of color…and people with low levels of educational attainment.” (Thompson, n.d.)

From pictures to videos, so many kids of color see men of color as effigies of what not to become. The criminal on the news is likely a man of color and so is the high school drop-out. Seeing a roaring crowd of black men cheering on young students from kindergarten to fifth and sixth grades was not only heartwarming, it was inspiring. A suit represents so much more than just a tailored look. It’s success; it’s happiness; it’s an ability to overcome; it’s positive; it’s anti-everything we’ve been feed to believe that’s negative about black men. For each kid seeing that image, it’s eternal.

I applaud this action and know it will have a long-term impact. Now it’s time for more men of means and success to throw their own hats in the ring as mentors and role models. Black men


Can the crisis in educating the black boy in America be solved? Yes it can: I am living proof. However, it’s going to take more than platitudes; more than speeches by politicians; more than one or two outstanding teachers . . . it’s going to take an entire culture that decides it’s time to do something. So let’s roll up our sleeves and plunge in. We have work to do.

Given the dire history outlined above, and the current difficulties faced by the African-American population, it would be easy to assume that educating black boys is a lost cause. This is demonstrably not the case. In fact, if one looks purely at the statistics surrounding young African-American males in education, the progress is inexorably upward. Dropout rates have been steadily decreasing. The achievement gap between blacks and whites is closing: from fifty-three points in 1970 to twenty-six points in 2004 for seventeen-year-olds.

It is clear that, even given the tremendous obstacles facing the black boy in education, his spirit remains unquenched: he will continue to strive for the best, and is making headway in the face of almost inconceivable historical injustices. To borrow the words of Frederick Douglass, he has been given the inch; he will now “take the ell.” Though we are still in crisis, there is a visible path out of the morass. In the next chapters, we will examine in detail the primary obstacles that continue to stand in the way of young African-Americans in education, and will look at concrete, actionable ways to tear those down, paving the way for a future of parity and promise.


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