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Are Early Interventions the Key to Ending the Black Male Education Crisis?

Scholars say we need to focus intervention efforts for black boys on pre-K through third grade, but the methods raise plenty of questions.

With only eight percent of black male eighth graders enrolled in schools in urban areas scoring "proficient" on reading tests, and only 10 percent scoring "proficient" in math, intervention programs usually focus on boosting black male middle and high school results and improving high school graduation rates. However, a solution to the black male education crisis offered at a recent symposium held by the Education Testing Service and the Children's Defense Fund suggests a different approach: Reaching young black males when they're much younger—between pre-K and third grade.

Why start interventions early? Statistically, black children are more likely to grow up in poverty (PDF), which means from the time they're born, they're less likely to have access to health care and aren't placed in high quality child care settings. Although black girls are affected by these disparities, because of a combination of race, gender, and poverty, by the time black boys are two, according to a federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, they're already behind on cognitive tests. That means on the first day of kindergarten, black boys are likely to be academically behind both black girls and their white peers.

Since these boys need catching up from day one, scholars attending the symposium say school districts should place their best teachers in the lower elementary grades. Schools don't always do this because of a mentality that it doesn't take real skill to teach an early elementary or preschool curriculum—how hard can it be to teach the alphabet or the phonetic sounds of the letters, right? Plus it's easy to think that if kids miss something in pre-K or kindergarten, there's always next year to catch up. But with the most effective teachers in those grades, kids should be able to get on track academically earlier.

While the idea of reaching black boys at a younger age makes sense, some of the suggestions for how schools can tweak early grade intervention could go completely wrong if not thoughtfully implemented. Oscar A. Barbarin III, a psychology professor at Tulane University, says schools should back off the academics in kindergarten and first grade and instead focus on teaching black boys social and emotional skills, and address their more holistic needs. Montclair State University educational psychology professor Jamaal S. Matthews told Education Week he agrees with Barbarin and shared that according to his research on behavioral self regulation in black kindergarteners "boys who lack self-regulation skills may be viewed by teachers as aggressive."

While making schooling more holistic is needed, backing off the academics in early elementary school isn't exactly going to help black boys who are behind in reading and math get on grade level. And, what Matthews isn't saying, or at least, isn't saying to Education Week, is that because of racism, a teaching population that's predominantly white and female is socialized to see a black male as aggressive no matter what.

There's also a really fine line between genuinely addressing a need and assuming that all black males (and black children in general) are in need of self-regulation instruction, or need to be taught social and emotional skills any more than any other group of kids. I'm reminded of Chris Rock's autobiographical sitcom Everybody Hates Chris and the stereotypical assumptions his white teacher, Ms. Morello, makes about him. She figures that because Rock is black, he comes from a low-income, single-parent household that serves crack and malt liquor for breakfast. Ms. Morello behaves in the most condescending ways possible—all in the name of trying to help him.

As sticky as rolling out an emphasis on social and emotional skills might get, Matthews and Barbarin could be on the right track. Sadly, there simply isn't enough research on black boys' experiences in the early grades to say definitively what will improve things. What is for sure is that if we genuinely want to put the 3.9 million black boys under the age of nine in America on the college track, something has to change with the way schools currently teach them.

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