A Black Males Strengths & Weaknesses in Education

A Black Males Strengths & Weaknesses in Education
Todays education is often viewed today as failing in its major goal of educating students, especially those students characterized as minorities, including African American, Hispanic, and Appalachian students (Quiroz, 1999). Among the minority groups mentioned, African American males are affected most adversely. Research has shown that when Black male students are compared to other students by gender and race they consistently rank lowest in academic achievement (Ogbu, 2003), have the worst attendance record (Voelkle, 1999), are suspended and expelled the most often (Raffaele Mendez, 2003; Staples, 1982), are most likely to drop out of school, and most often fail to graduate from high school or to earn a GED (Pinkney, 2000; Roderick, 2003).
Research has also shown that this record of poor performance by Black male students during their elementary and secondary school years limits their involvement in education at the college level (Cross & Slater, 2000) and correlates strongly with their disproportionately large numbers in the country’s jails and penitentiaries (Males ; Macallair, 2000; Yeakey, 2002). Adult Black males lead the nation in being undereducated, unemployed (Boyer, 1988; Hornor, 2002; Pinkney, 2000), and incarcerated (Drakeford ; Garfinkel, 2000). Black males are also characterized as having more health problems (Kirk, 1986) and dying at a younger age (Boyer, 1988; Hornor, 2002; Kirk, 1986; Pinkney, 2000), regardless of race and gender, than any other group in America.

The challenges faced by Black males in American society are well known. What may not be widely recognized is the role America’s schools play in perpetuating these problems. The purpose of this paper is to make more generally accessible recent research that attempts to isolate factors leading to conflict between Black male students and increasingly White teaching staff in our public schools (Cooper and Jordan, 2003). This paper also describes ways in which schools and school districts are beginning to implement programs designed to resolve these conflicts.
From A historical perspective the unsuccessful journey of the Black male student from public school through to his unfulfilled place in society did not end with Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision that ended de jure school segregation in 1954. Even though a series of civil rights bills in the 1950s and 1960s eliminated the Black codes, repealed Jim Crow laws, and guaranteed voting rights for Blacks, the plight of Black male students in our schools did not improve (Ascher, 1995). There is no single overriding factor to explain this lack of success, but most scholars and researchers point out that beginning in the colonial era and continuing through most of our nation’s history, the experiences of Black males in White society have been so negative and psychologically damaging (Pinkney, 2000; Staples, 1982) that they have given birth to and nurtured a deep-seated and tenacious belief in their own, and the entire Black community’s, inferiority. At the beginning of this history, Black male slaves were looked upon by White society as the most undesirable and least trust worthy of people, and they were treated accordingly. Black male slaves were closely associated with and compared to animals, and were said to have a deceptive and violent nature and to be uncontrollable and in need of the whip (Kunjufu, 1986). Given this formative experience in slavery, the fact that Black males have continued to be disadvantaged from birth to death throughout our nation’s short history hardly seems to need explanation.

A Broader Problem that plagues Black males are not totally the responsibility of the public schools, but are a responsibility of society as a whole (Delpit, 1995). We can say, however, that the public schools do play a major role in addressing the problems of Black male students. The educational experiences and the support services afforded Black male students could play an important role in helping them reverse their dismal school performance and subsequent journey through life, to a life with the potential for success. Research has shown that when public schools provide a more relevant education with services that address their psychological and emotional needs, Black males begin to experience greater school success and their feeling of inferiority begins to fade (Franklin, 1999). What is needed is academic reform that addresses the way Black males are educated, a more caring support base, and more relevant social services.

When Black male students have assimilated the message that they are in need of ‘discipline,’ teachers, now faced with preparing students for state and national achievement tests, begin to place more emphasis on the importance of disciplined behavior: I call this ‘the confrontation point,’ because at about third or fourth grade, when schools begin national achievement testing and have established their tracks, poor children – especially Black boys – begin to get the message about their place in society. Too many of them have not been taught to read well, and they have not assimilated successfully into the school culture. They are no longer little and cute, and the teachers’ dislike of them and distain for their abilities show through. Even when their early achievement is up to the level of other students, after fourth grade they fall farther and farther behind, usually entering junior high school one or two full grades behind. (Gentry & Peelle, 1994, p. 35)
One solution to this problem is to recruit more African American teachers, especially male teachers. But, though there is some recent evidence to suggest that Black male students accomplish more in classrooms led by Black teachers (Murrell, 2002; Tyson, 2003), this is not always the case. In Gouldner’s (1978) classic three-year ethnographic study of four all-Black, inner-city schools in the Midwest, the researcher found that Black kindergarten teachers “directed the lion’s share of their negative responses to boys rather than girls” (p. 73) – more than 5 1/2 times more in one classroom – and that “these early divisions tended to become permanent during the kindergarten year and generally carried over through first and second grade” (p. 130). Teaching Black male students is the concern of all educators, but the focus of concern for the foreseeable future will continue to be on the challenges Black male students present to White, mostly female teachers.

The public school system, and indeed society as a whole, send multiple messages to young Black males, which tell them they are undesirable and will not amount to much in society. Eventually, many young men accept and internalize this message and begin to lower the expectations they have for themselves – a self-fulfilling prophecy. When an individual understands that others expect him to do bad things, he may choose to do bad things, and when he realizes that he is assumed to be the least intelligent student in the class, he may act accordingly. Young Black men often set forth on a torrid path of self-destruction, a path that many people expected of him. A lack of support services and bridging efforts from problems to solutions are the benchmark of many young Black men’s educational experiences, and sometimes of their experiences at home and in the community as well. This lack can contribute to an individual’s journey from unemployment, to possible imprisonment, to an early death.

Extensive literature on the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophesy exists in the field of education. One classic article is, Student Social Class and Teacher Expectations: The Self-fulfilling Prophesy of Ghetto Education, written by R. C. Rist in 1970. In this article, Rist describes a process in which student success or failure depends on teacher expectations, with teacher expectations based not on students’ academic ability but rather on their social class background. In a later book, Rist (1973) gives this phenomenon more extensive treatment in an account of classroom interactions at an all-Black elementary school in St. Louis. Beginning in kindergarten, teachers separated ‘slow learners’ from ‘fast learners’ based not on intelligence, ability, or preparedness, but largely on social class background. Rist demonstrates how these groupings lead teachers to treat these different groups of students differently. He states: Within the classrooms, one of the seemingly inescapable consequences of the segregation systems was that the children themselves quickly picked up what it meant to be on one side of the barrier or the other. Each group of students began to emulate the teacher’s treatment of the other. The high group followed the teacher in their ridicule, belittlement, physical abuse, and social ostracism of the lower groups. The lower-class students displayed patterns of deference and passivity towards those of the high group. (p. 245)
The point Rist makes about differential treatment based on social class in the 1970s can be made today in relation to race, ethnicity, and gender. Unless our school systems make deliberate and systematic attempts to resist the process of separating students on the basis of race and gender, we risk collaboration in perpetuating inequities which, as educators, we know means offering inferior educational opportunities to Black male students who are just as capable as other students of achieving success. As stated earlier, Davis (2003) cites evidence to show that, beginning in fourth grade, Black males experience “a sharp decline in their test scores” (p. 526). But Davis also goes on to state that, “these declines correspond to the ability grouping of Black boys in which they only have access to lower level courses” (p. 526). The point is that race, ethnicity, and gender have replaced social class as what Rist (1973) called “The single most influential variable to which the teachers responded” (p. 242). The formation of ability groupings in classrooms shape individuals’ beliefs and attitudes of themselves, as well as their behaviors.
Solutions Leading to Reform
The focus of this paper has been on the role of strength that school plays in shaping the future of Black male students in society. In a sense when you think about the strength a school has to empower the weakness of black males of todays society. Schools have a major responsibility for developing and implementing programs to prevent failure – programs to intervene in and ameliorate the social problems many Black males face in America. Support services are critical to bridging the gap between achievement and socially acceptable behavior (Fashola, 2003). Before schools can act responsibly on behalf of Black males, more effort must be made to recognize the plight of African American males in our society and therefore respond with appropriate and extensive reforms (Boyer, 1988; Hopkins, 1997; Mitchell et al., 2002; Murtadhu-Watts, 2000). School personnel must also be willing to acknowledge the negative stereotypes that exist around Black males. They must also be willing to recognize that because they are products of a racist society, they most likely also have deeply hidden negative perceptions of Black male students. Comprehensive programs of staff development and training that focus on recognizing this internalized and institutionalized racism, as well as programs addressing how to relate to and instruct Black males are key to improving these students’ school experiences and quality of life after school.

Another important step leading to positive change for Black male students is that schools must acknowledge the systemic ills of their own policies and practices, such as discipline codes that rely heavily on removing students from instruction and ‘no pass, no play’ policies, which disproportionately affect Black male students. Not only must schools acknowledge these systemic ills created by policy and practice, but also they must work to change them (Ascher, 1991). Inherent in this change process is a ‘must change attitude’ in how the Black male is perceived. The schools must begin to see Black males as victims of the system and not simply as the cause for the ills within the system. In Conclusion we must acknowledge that Black male students do bear responsibility for their behavior despite their negative school experiences, the negative perceptions of many of their teachers, and the lack of services and support programs for them. More young Black males must follow the example of individual Black adults who have been remarkably successful, largely through their own efforts. They must be helped by caring educators to be strong, courageous and to work harder to fulfill themselves and to succeed in society despite the barriers erected by the schools. Human understanding, human support, and human resources are greater solutions to the plight of the Black male than dollars. As schools begin to invest in real reform efforts regarding the education of Black males, measurable benefits will accrue for both schools and society. As students, Black males will become more fulfilled and more productive, regaining and maintaining their love for school. They will almost certainly become high school graduates instead of high school dropouts. If they choose, they will be qualified to enter and graduate from college, instead of turning to the streets and winding up in jail. Whatever path these individuals choose to take will be open to them, and it is very likely they will become productive members of society who are gainfully employed. They may even find the security and stability they need to form lasting attachments and pass on to their children their love of school and education. Instead of becoming a dismal statistic, disadvantaged from birth to death, young Black males generally could become what, against all odds, so many individual Black males already are-constructive and creative forces in a society that would be diminished without them.

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