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The State of the African American Male
MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Michigan State University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Underachievement of African American Males in k–12 Education
Deborah A. Harmon and Donna Y. Ford
To be young and African American in the urban areas of the United States is to be subjected to all the harshest elements of oppression at the most vulnerable period of one's life.
>> Robert Staples, Black Masculinity, 1982
To understand the underachievement of African American males in public education today, one must first examine the history of educational discrimination African Americans have experienced. That history begins with the peculiar institution of American slavery, in which Africans imported to the New World were forbidden to learn how to read and write. After the Civil War and the emancipation of America's enslaved populations, African American families were largely forced to live in segregated communities, where their children attended segregated schools. With the 1896 Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, such schools were deemed legal, if they offered "separate but equal" educational facilities and experiences to their students (Orfield, 2001). During the era of segregation, African American schools, though lacking in infrastructure compared to Whites-only schools, were staffed primarily by African American teachers who generally lived in the neighborhoods served by the schools. Because of funding inequities, African American schools were hard-pressed to acquire up-to-date instructional materials, but their teachers infused their curricula with lessons on the accomplishments and history of people of African descent to bolster their students' senses of self-esteem, group pride, and individual self-efficacy.
According to William Julius Wilson (1987), family involvement, or the participation of family members in tandem with classroom teachers to meet the learning needs of students, was less of a challenge for African American schools during segregation than it is currently. This was because these schools were centrally located within an essential part of African American communities. African American families from lower, middle, and upper socioeconomic levels all lived together in those communities, and they typically knew each other well enough to support each other's mutual educational interests. As a result, African American children frequently observed firsthand the impact of education on the lives of both laborers and professionals within their midst.
With the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision in 1954 came court-ordered desegregation. African American and White students were bused to the same schools in an effort to achieve numerical racial balance and equity in education. The face of schools across the nation eventually changed as African American students joined Whites in classrooms across the land. With desegregation came new challenges for African American students. Most of their new classes were taught by White teachers. Their new curriculum was Eurocentric and not inclusive of African American culture or history. African American family involvement in the schooling process declined as African American families typically did not live near their children's new integrated schools, and many African American parents found it increasingly difficult to attend school conferences and events.
During the 1970s, African American students at many of the newly desegregated schools realized gains in achievement test scores, but their test scores began to decline in the late 1980s. Today, after about 20 years of experimentation with busing and other integration methods, school districts across the nation have dismantled efforts to desegregate schools. Subsequently, African American and White students have returned to their neighborhood schools. The resulting separation is referred to as the resegregation of American education (Orfield, 2001).
African American communities have changed. They no longer consist of families representing lower, middle, and upper socioeconomic levels. Given the improved economic and housing opportunities that resulted from the Brown decision and the passage of other federal civil rights laws, many upper- and middle-class African American families moved away from their traditional urban and rural communities to integrate into suburban White communities. With the decline of the urban industrial economy in the 1960s, many unskilled jobs in the nation's cities were eliminated, resulting in a decrease in the number of middle- and working-class African American families and a subsequent increase in the social isolation of African Americans in high-poverty inner-city communities.
As a result, many of the African American youth remaining in the nation's urban neighborhoods ceased to have contact with regularly employed individuals —especially African American males, who rapidly became a shrinking presence in the labor force, with disproportionate numbers of them experiencing long-term poverty. These young people only rarely were able to tap into job networks or other middle-class resources. Their increasing social isolation yielded a breeding ground for drug abuse, domestic violence, higher birthrates, health problems, and disproportionate numbers of arrests, incarcerations, and suicides. These ills in turn led to increases in crime, addiction, welfare dependency, school dropout, and unemployment for African Americans in U.S. urban areas (Wilson, 1987).
In the ensuing decades, African Americans additionally experienced declines in the number of two-parent families and increases in the number of households headed by women whose men were living illegal and dangerous lifestyles (Roach, 2000; Wilson, 1987). The lack of African American men who could demonstrate responsible, legitimate, adult behavior has had a profoundly negative impact on African American boys, who have since childhood been bombarded with pejorative images and stereotypes of African American males by newspapers, movies, television, and the Internet. Adding to this construction of the African American male are the deprecating images in rap music and hip-hop videos that glamorize pimps and gangsters.
Currently many states, Michigan among them, are experiencing resegregation, leading some researchers to declare that the United States is more segregated today than it was before Brown (Orfield, 2001). Not surprisingly, Michigan has been named one of the most segregated states in the nation (Tench, 2004). Its largest city, Detroit, has been identified as the second most African American city, after Gary, Indiana; while Livonia—only 15 minutes away from the Motor City—has been identified as the nation's "Whitest" city (Trowbridge, 2002). African American students, particularly males, are not faring well in Michigan's public schools, as demonstrated in the disparity in achievement test scores between African Americans and Whites (Great Schools, 2007). The confounding reality, however, is that this underachievement spans African American students across all socioeconomic levels, with those living in highly educated college communities claiming scores at the farthest ends of the widest academic gaps between African American and White students (Noguera, 2001, 2003).
In Michigan and elsewhere, large differences in test scores have been noted between African and European American students, even at the top levels of performance. In 2001, the Center on Educational Policy (Kober, 2001) examined the development and history of the achievement gap and presented its findings in a report that indicated that a significant reduction in the achievement gap had been achieved from 1970 to the late 1980s. The report further claimed that the nation had undertaken a concerted effort to improve educational opportunities through its War on Poverty program, school reforms, and entitlement programs such as Title I and Head Start. Beginning with the 1990s, however, that achievement gap began widening again, and was evident even before African American students entered kindergarten. Racial-ethnic differences in family income were found to contribute to the achievement gap but did not entirely explain the gap in test performance between African American and White students. Indeed, the achievement gap was noted among African American students regardless of socioeconomic status (Kober, 2001).
A few years ago, in an attempt to understand the performance of African American students, Howard University hosted a symposium on African American male educational achievement and invited leading scholars and experts on the achievement gap to identify possible causal factors (Roach, 2000). Table 1 summarizes the causes of the achievement gap between the performance of African American and White middle-class students on achievement tests that were identified at the Howard University symposium. Included in the table are suggestions for ways that each issue might be addressed. Also see the work of Barton and Coley (2009) for a more comprehensive review of 16 major correlates of the Black-White achievement gap.
The Howard University symposium brought to light several issues relating to the underachievement of African American male students in special education, regular education, and gifted education programs that required further study. It also unearthed many concerns still unaddressed, grouping those challenges into four major categories: societal, family, school, and culture. Among the societal challenges raised at the symposium were those beliefs, practices, and conditions that negatively influence African American males' educational experiences, such as deficit-deprivation, social injustices and inequalities, and "the lure of the streets."
Deficit-deprivation theories propose the existence of inherent differences in intellectual ability among races. In effect, persons of European descent are deemed most intelligent, followed by Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and last among all, African Americans. Teachers who subscribe to such beliefs hold low expectations of African American students' academic performance, which can result in poor performance, self-doubt, and the belief that academic achievement is the sole province of Whites (Ferguson, 1998). Structural inequalities refer to the differences in access, experiences, exposure, and enrichment that exist between schools and schooling at the middle and lower socioeconomic levels. Schools in high-poverty areas experience inadequate school resources, underfunding, large class sizes, less-qualified teachers, and high staff turnover. Moreover, these schools use White middle-class experiences as the standards and norms by which to measure their students. This practice privileges White middle-class students and puts students from lower socioeconomic levels at a disadvantage. Practices within the classroom also create social inequalities, including less rigorous teaching, emphasis on lower-level thinking skills, the provision of fewer opportunities to gain high-level academic skills, less-constructive feedback and encouragement, and infrequent referrals to Advanced Placement classes or gifted and talented programs (Ford & Moore, 2004; Harmon, 2004). The "lure of the street" refers to an unprincipled desire for material possessions and an emphasis on emulating what is colloquially called "thug life" or "gangsta" culture. Media and entertainment are the major forces transmitting these unflattering, anti-intellectual images of, and beliefs about, African American men to young people of all races and cultures. Exposure to these images can cause young African American males to have poor views of themselves and their communities as well as substandard achievement orientations toward and attitudes about their scholarly aptitude (Ford & Moore, 2004).
A substantial educational challenge for urban African American parents, the majority of whom are poor or working class, is overcoming or correcting the myth that they do not care about their children's schooling. This challenge exists because many teachers conceptualize and measure family involvement through a very limited paradigm. They complain about the frequently reported poor attendance of African American parents and other family members at school conferences and programs and conclude that African Americans today are disinterested in education. However, Ford and Moore (2004) suggest several reasons urban African American families often do not participate in school activities in the ways observed among other racial/ethnic groups. They note that for many such families fulfilling basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter often supersedes the need to participate more directly in the schooling process. Many do not have the funds to provide their children with the books, materials, and extracurricular activities that can enrich the educational experience; thus placing their children at a disadvantage when competing with students whose families have these resources and experiences. These shortcomings, Ford and Moore report, are often compounded with African American parents' own past experiences in desegregated schools. Many recall school as an unpleasant place and a hostile environment, and subsequently find it difficult to become involved with their children's schools and teachers. Some African American parents simply differ in how they show support for their children's education, and their alternate forms of involvement may not be recognized or valued by teachers.
Numerous school-based factors have been shown to influence the achievement of African American students, particularly males, in negative ways. Among them are tracking, the so-called Fourth-Grade Syndrome, cultural discontinuity, underprepared teachers, and low teacher expectations. Tracking is the practice of assigning students at the beginning of a school year to a fixed ability group and keeping them within that group regardless of their performance. Often, however, ability grouping in schools serving racially and ethnically diverse students is stratified not only by academic performance but also by race and ethnicity (Carter, 2005). Research has shown that typically African American students, especially males, are placed in the lower tracks. Students who find themselves in learning environments in which their educational needs are not being met often respond in one of two ways: withdrawing or acting out. It is precisely these kinds of behaviors that cause African American males to be targeted for referral to special education programs (Hallinan & Sorenson, 1983; Lucas, 1999; Oakes, 1985). Tracking reinforces racial boundaries and discourages African American students from enrolling in more challenging, Advanced Placement, or gifted education classes, as evidenced in the overrepresentation of African American males in special education and the underrepresentation of African American males in gifted and talented programs. Additionally, the prospect of being the only African American student in a higher-tracked class or program is a deterrent for group-identified African American students and leads them away from opportunities to develop their abilities (Ford, 1996).
Many American students experience a drop on their achievement tests, especially in reading and writing, during the fourth grade (Harmon & Jones, 2005). For African American male students, however, this declining academic performance typically begins before the fourth grade, when disproportionate numbers tend to "check out" of the schooling process completely. Unlike their White counterparts, many of these African American boys do not recover academically, thus marking the beginning of a downward slide toward negative achievement as they proceed through elementary, middle school, and high school (Lloyd, 1978).
Cultural discontinuity refers to a mismatch between the home culture and the school culture and, in many cases, the culture of the teacher. In most U.S. schools, the classroom environment—including the communication style, instructional style, and curriculum—are based upon the needs and norms of dominant-culture or White middle-class American students. African American male students typically find themselves to be "cultural misfits" in the schools they predominantly attend. Nowhere is this difference in culture more apparent than in the way teachers interact and develop relationships with African American male students (Irvine, 1999).
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