4 Troubling Truths About Black Boys and the U.S. Educational System
Most people like to think that American K-12 schools, workplaces and courthouses are pillars of fairness, but statistic after statistic all point to a crisis among the young, Black men of the nation. This crisis begins in homes, stretches to K-12 educational experiences, and leads straight to the cycle of incarceration in increasingly high numbers. In America’s prison systems, black citizens are incarcerated at six times the rates of white ones – and the NAACP predicts that one in three of this generation of Black men will spend some time locked up.
Decreasing the rates of incarceration for black men may actually be a matter of improving educational outcomes for black boys in America. 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.
While there are many areas of improvement that we could look at changing for more successful outcomes for black men, I will discuss just four indicators that illustrate the current situation for black boys in the U.S., with the hope of starting a conversation about what we can do to produce a stronger generation of Black young men in our society.
- Black boys are more likely to be placed in special education.
While it is true that Black boys often arrive in Kindergarten classrooms with inherent disadvantages, they continue to experience a “behind the 8-ball” mentality as their school careers progress. 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.
Learning disabilities are just a part of the whole picture. Black students (and particularly boys) experience disconnection when it comes to the authority figures in their classrooms. The K-12 teaching profession is dominated by white women, many of whom are very qualified and very interested in helping all their students succeed but lack the first-hand experience needed to connect with their Black male students.
- Black boys are more likely to attend schools without the adequate resources to educate them.
Schools with majority 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 schools with at least 50 percent Black students, only 48 percent were certified in the subject, compared with 65 percent in majority white schools. In English, the numbers were 59 and 68 percent, respectively and in science, they were 57 percent and 73 percent.
- Black boys are not reading at an adequate level.
In 2014, the Black Star Project published findings that just 10 percent of eighth-grade Black boys in the U.S. are considered “proficient” in reading. In urban areas like Chicago and Detroit, that number was even lower. 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 achievement gap between the two races is startling, but the difference between the NAEP report on Black students as a whole and the Black Star findings of just Black boys is troubling too. It is not simply Black children in general who appear to be failing in the basics – like literacy; it is the boys.
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. I believe these numbers are key to understanding the plight of young Black men in our society as a whole.
- Punishment for black boys is harsher than for any other demographic.
Punishment for Black boys – even first-time offenders – in schools is harsher than any other demographic. Consider these facts:
- Black students make up just 18 percent of children in U.S. preschools, but make up half of those youngsters who are suspended.
- Black boys receive two-thirds of all school suspensions nationwide – all demographics and both genders considered.
- In Chicago, 75 percent of all students arrested in public schools are Black.
What’s most troubling is that not all of the Black boys taken from their schools in handcuffs are 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.
School suspension, and certainly arrest, is just the beginning of a life considered on the wrong side of the law for many Black boys. By 18 years of age, 30 percent of Black males have been arrested at least once, compared to just 22 percent of white males. Those numbers rise to 49 percent for Black men by the age of 23, and 38 percent of white males. Researchers from several universities concluded earlier this year that arrests early in life often set the course for more crimes and incarceration throughout the rest of the offender’s lifetime.
No wonder they aren’t in college…
These trends are not conducive to improving the numbers of young black men who are able to attend college. In fact, the numbers are dismal when it comes to black young men who attend and graduate from colleges in the U.S. Statistically speaking, black men have the lowest test scores, the worst grades and the highest dropout rates – in K-12 education, and in college too. The recognition of this educational crisis has led to some strong initiatives targeted at young black men with the intention of guiding them through the college years and to successful, productive lives that follow.
This is why college motivation within and outside the black community is so vital for these young men. At this point in the nation’s history, they are in the greatest need for the lifestyle change that higher education can provide, and not just for individual growth, but also for the benefit of the entire nation. But in order to get there, black boys must experience the motivation to succeed well before college.