The right way to help minority boys
The Obama administration recently hosted one of several conference calls with men of color as part of My Brother’s Keeper, a new five-year, $200-million White House initiative aimed at “helping young men and boys of color facing tough odds reach their full potential.”
But according to the initiative’s website, as well as the National Center for Educational Statistics, the biggest barrier to their success is already clear: inequitable schooling, not only for boys of color, but also for girls.
My Brother’s Keeper — which will bring together businesses and foundations to test strategies aimed at early childhood education, among other issues — is an important step with some promise. But if President Barack Obama really wants to improve the lives of young men and women of color, he needs to stop promoting educational policies like No Child Left Behind, which increases standardization and high-stakes testing, but fails to address racial inequities in schools.
In communities across the country, African-American, Latino and Native American males struggle in school. A report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education revealed that in 2010, only 58 percent of Latino males and 47 percent of African-American males graduated from high school. By comparison, the graduation rate for white, non-Latino males was 78 percent.
Although graduation rates for African-American and Latino males have improved in the last three years, the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education paints a disturbing picture. African-American, Native American and Latino students have less access to advanced math and science courses than their white peers, according to the Education Department, and are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers. They are underrepresented in gifted programs and advanced placement classes. African-American and Native American students are also suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates.
The inequities, according to the DoE, begin in preschool, where African-American children, who comprise 18 percent of all preschool students, represent 48 percent of the preschool children receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions. Across grade levels, African-American girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race or ethnicity. While African-American students comprise just 16 percent of all students in U.S. public schools, they represent 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students arrested in school.
To reverse these statistics, administrators and school boards must start reviewing school discipline policies for racial, ethnic and gender bias. Parents and guardians need to challenge the biases in schools’ behavior punishment policies, and take greater responsibility for how schools discipline their children.
The nation’s most comprehensive federal education policy, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), must also be rewritten. Although the Department of Education developed this program to address racial achievement gaps — including the differences in test scores, high school graduation rates and college access between white and Asian students and their African-American and Latino peers — it has failed to address racial disparities. The achievement gap between white and minority students has not narrowed, particularly in math and reading proficiency, despite the focus of NCLB.
Education policies like NCLB prevent us from creating an equitable school system. Its focus on high-stakes testing results in an emphasis on low-level skills included in the tests, and an assessment of English language skills that unfairly penalizes students from non-English-speaking families. NCLB also fails to address the weak educational resources and under-prepared teachers in the schools that most poor minority students attend.
My own five-year anthropological study of NCLB reveals that in 45 public schools in New York City, the policy negatively affected poor, African-American and Latino youth who disproportionately attend low-performing schools. In these schools, NCLB-mandated tests assessed minority youth at a lower score than they might have otherwise received. English language learners, in particular, would have performed better with other types of testing.
In high schools, the policy led to the exclusion of low-scoring youth from mainstream classes, causing a disproportionate number of African-American and Latino students to be placed in special education programs or to drop out.
Young African-American males, their female peers and other students of color face serious inequities in school. We need to address this problem by rewriting NCLB or crafting a new federal education policy that supports flexibility for schools and more autonomy for educators, while also holding them accountable for students’ learning.
Pushing for a fair, equitable education that address racial disparities during this midterm election year would be the best way for all of us to be our brothers’ keepers.
PHOTOS: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an event to launch the initiative “My Brother’s Keeper” at the White House in Washington February 27, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks into the ear of Christian Champagne after Champagne introduced Obama to launch the initiative “My Brother’s Keeper” at the White House in Washington February 27, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque